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Monday, May 19th, 2014

Ratings vs. Reviews: Where Do Today's Comedies Stack Up?

While it's true that Nielsen ratings are an inaccurate and outdated measure of today's television audiences, they still serve as a show's ultimate ticket to survival when — as we saw in the recent sitcom cancellation bloodbath – network brass decide which programs to axe off their lineup. Some of comedy's biggest fan favorites weren't exactly ratings blockbusters while on the air — see Arrested Development, Happy Endings, and Community – but went on to carve out niche audiences, and as television moves more and more into the internet age, online reviews, Twitter, and fan feedback can gauge a show's watchability faster than asking "Sure, but does it average a steady 5.0 season average Nielsen rating?"

With that in mind, we thought it'd be fun to play around with some numbers, charts, and graphs to get a sense of where the shows of 2013-2014 stand, comparing their most recent average Nielsen ratings with their user score on Metacritic. Which shows rack up the highest Nielsen ratings but tank with online critics, and which shows aren't bringing in the Nielsens but have the most passionate supporting fanbases? A few enlightening surprises showed up amongst the obvious. Check out the full results below.

A few notes on the data:

  • The Nielsen rating for each show is the combined average rating for its most current season using 18-49 Live+7 ratings, which are the total weekly ratings for live and DVR viewers ages 18-49. For shows not on the air, we averaged the most recently completed season's rating; for shows that have just started or are in the middle of their latest seasons, the rating is calculated from the current season's episodes that have aired so far. All average ratings and scores are current as of May 9, 2014.
  • "Special episodes" such as the post-Super Bowl editions of New Girl and Modern Family have not been included in the Nielsen season averages.
  • Metacritic scores shown refer to the most recent available user score. Not all shows have complete Metascores, so we used user scores for both consistency and to compare Nielsen ratings with everyday fans' reviews (versus paid critics).
  • Since shows that air on major networks have a ratings advantage over cable, we've color-coded network shows to distinguish them from their cable competitors.

Nielsen vs. Metacritic: Where Do Today's Shows Stack Up?

Ratings Hogs: The top left includes the shows that are not only some of the highest rated comedies on television right now — they're also the ones that are the most widely hated, at least in the case of their newest batch of episodes. Fox's animated juggernauts The Simpsons and Family Guy are about equally guilty (mainly of overstaying their welcome), while 2 Broke Girls, Mike & Molly, and The Middle also continue to rake in large numbers but negative fan reactions. As you can see, Fox and CBS rule the Ratings Hogs category, which isn't much of a surprise.

Strugglers: While the shows on the bottom left aren't necessarily in danger due to ratings, their most current seasons have received some pretty lackluster reception from fans. Girlsratings are on par with most of the other cable shows, but it's the most negatively reviewed cable series on Metacritic this year. Similarly, both Workaholics and Portlandia brought impressive ratings for Comedy Central and IFC respectively, but the fan love just isn't there the way it is for shows like…

Critical Darlings: Review, Louie, Veep, Inside Amy Schumer, Key and Peele, Silicon Valley, Rick and Morty, Broad City, Childrens Hospital – there's definitely a pattern in the bottom right with critically beloved shows known for their dedicated but comparatively small audiences. While none of these shows have scored average ratings higher than that of the recently canceled Trophy Wife or Community, they're generally on par with most cable ratings (though Review's debut season barely scraped by) and universally loved by fans. It's probably safe to say that if you like any show in this corner you'll enjoy pretty much all the others around it. Community is the lowest-rated network show to get such high online reviews, which is a good argument that it probably would've done much better on cable than a big network like NBC.

Middle Grounders: When it comes to the center of the graph, The Mindy Project wins the award for the most perfectly middle-of-the-road TV choice available with mid-level ratings and reviews across the board this year. American Dad, The Goldbergs, New Girl, and Brooklyn Nine-Nine all trail behind it in online reviews but perform a little better in the ratings; in the case of freshman Fox sitcom and recent Golden Globe winner Brooklyn Nine-Nine, it's probably just a case of a new show feeling its way towards a consistent tone.

True Winners: It's not easy to make a sitcom that's both well-loved by tons of fans and a steady Nielsen hit, which is why there's a bunch of empty space in the top right. In any case, Parks and Recreation came out as the most balanced ratings/reviews success of all the shows we analyzed, while Comedy Central's 17-year hit South Park easily beat out all other non-network shows in the ratings. Similar to Parks and Rec was Bob's Burgers, which raked in less viewers but the best online viewer feedback of all the shows included in the analysis.

If you're a fan of The Big Bang Theory, Modern Family, or Two and a Half Men and confused why we left them off the infographic, here's why:

Today's TV Comedy Outliers

As you can see, these three shows completely tip the scale and screw up the graph altogether – Big Bang for its insanely high ratings, Modern Family for its less insane but still high ratings, and Two and a Half Men (which will end after next season) for drawing embarrassingly negative reviews for its most recent season. The biggest takeaway here isn't that Big Bang is a ratings monster or that Two and a Half Men is all-around godawful, it's that today's most beloved TV comedies are merely flecks in the great big world of television, and Nielsen continues to encourage advertisers to throw truckloads of money at comedies that viewers can no longer stand; quantity barely ever equals quality. There's an enormous demographic of diverse, passionate, vocal, and above all, loyal fans out there (who buy things!) whose voices are landing on the deaf ears of Nielsen's aging bigwigs and the ad buyers who depend on them. If Nielsen never learns to adapt to the fractured TV viewing of the internet age, maybe advertising will cut out the middle man and tap into all this hidden potential? In the meantime, comedy fans will have to deal with the cold reality that the more they love their favorite sitcom, the more the mysterious Mr. and Mrs. Nielsen will hate it – then demand its execution.