TV Long View: What If Nielsen Measured Linear TV the Way It Does Streaming?

Dan Levy in Schitt's Creek (Pop TV) and LeBron James in the NBA Finals
Pop TV Network/Photofest; Douglas P. DeFelice/Getty Images

For the past two months, Nielsen has released a weekly list of the top 10 streaming programs, which it measures by total minutes watched. The numbers attached to those lists are, at first glance, mind-bogglingly large.

Since the start of the rankings, which covered the week of Aug. 3, the No. 1 program has averaged 1.73 billion minutes viewed. The top-ranked show has come in under 1 billion minutes only twice in 10 weeks.

How can traditional TV possibly compete with numbers like that, right?

Rather well, actually. In fact, the biggest shows on broadcast and cable actually pull in more total viewing time than those on streaming platforms — even without the benefit of entire libraries at viewers' disposal.

Total viewing time, of course, isn't how the linear TV business is built. It's designed to get as many people watching at the same time as possible, and (networks and media buyers hope) watching the commercials that air during shows. That's why Nielsen measures the average audience for a show at any given minute.

Streaming is built on keeping viewers around, paying their monthly subscription fees, for as long as possible. A measure of time spent, then, is a good way to measure the power of a show or movie to keep users on the service.

There's a way, however, to arrive at the total viewing time for traditional TV shows, which is what The Hollywood Reporter did for this comparison. Multiplying a show's average audience by its running time gives a figure approximating total viewing time for a show.

THR applied that formula to Nielsen's seven-day ratings for the week of Oct. 5 and merged them with the streaming rankings for the same week (the most recent one available), which also counts viewing over seven days. Here's the streaming chart:

Show Outlet Minutes viewed (millions)
Schitt's Creek Netflix 1,456
The Haunting of Bly Manor Netflix 1,175
Hubie Halloween Netflix 969
The Office Netflix 862
The Boys Amazon 752
Emily in Paris Netflix 676
Grey's Anatomy Netflix 668
The 100 Netflix 664
Criminal Minds Netflix 656
The Blacklist Netflix 644

And here's the combined streaming and linear ranking:

Show Outlet Minutes viewed (millions)
Thursday Night Football Fox 2,909
Sunday Night Football NBC 2,847
NFL Monday Special CBS 2,512
Monday Night Football ESPN 1,673
NBA Finals Game 5 ABC 1,499
Schitt's Creek Netflix 1,456
NBA Finals Game 6 ABC 1,320
NBA Finals Game 4 ABC 1,276
The Haunting of Bly Manor Netflix 1,175
Vice Presidential Debate Fox News 1,105

Obviously, the sports- and news-heavy top of the linear ratings weight the second chart toward traditional TV. Take those programs out, and only ABC's Dancing With the Stars (845 million minutes) and CBS' 60 Minutes (755 million) make the top 10. But even a middling show, like NBC's Oct. 7 airing of Weakest Link (4.5 million viewers in the live plus seven ratings), racks up almost 270 million minutes of viewing time over a week.

Nielsen's streaming charts also measure the entire catalogs of TV series — the 1.46 billion minutes for Schitt's Creek, for instance, is spread across 80 episodes. THR's linear calculations are only for that week's single episode.

(It's worth noting that streaming platforms take issue with Nielsen's measurements, as they don't necessarily measure all devices used for viewing and are only for the United States. Streamers also don't regularly release much — if any — of their own viewing data.)

So it's not a perfect comparison by any means, nor does it make the case for one delivery system over another. The downward pressure on linear ratings remains very real and very heavy. But from show to show, the playing field is more level than it might seem.