How the ‘Breaking Bad’ Ratings Drop Demonstrates that Nielsen Ratings Officially Mean Nothing

This is how maddening Nielsen ratings are. After the season debut of Breaking Bad opened with 2.9 million viewers, the second week shed 21 percent of its audience according to Nielsen.

But did it really?

I mean, just think about it: Does anyone actually think that, after waiting nearly a year to get Breaking Bad back into their lives, and after hundreds of thousands of people became addicted to the show on Netflix, and after one hell of an awesome season opener, that suddenly 600,000 people decided, “Ah, f–k it. This show’s for the birds. I’m going to watch The Bachelorette instead”?

Of course not.

Almost certainly what happened was this: Because it was the first episode, more people watched it live because they were anxious for its return. The second episode, maybe 600,000 people thought, “Eh, it’s Sunday at 10 p.m. It’s been a long weekend. I’m beat. I’m going to go have sex with my wife and fall asleep. Breaking Bad will still be there tomorrow.”

The fact that advertisers rely SO heavily on Nielsens is absurd. To actually believe that only 2.3 or 2.9 million people watch Breaking Bad in the first place is dumb. Hell, there are probably 2.9 million people commenting on episode recaps of Breaking Bad around the web. Why do all glossy print magazines devote so much copy to shows that only get 3 million viewers, like Breaking Bad and Mad Men, instead of giving every cover to the cast of NCIS?

There’s a serious disconnect between Nielsen ratings and reality.

Here’s an interesting juxtaposition that demonstrates the point. Over on IMDb, Breaking Bad has a 9.4 user rating. NCIS has a 7.8 user rating. American Idol has a 4.4 user rating. But let’s put aside the ratings, and focus on the number of users that voted. Breaking Bad has had 100,000 users vote in four years. NCIS, the top rated scripted program in America, has had 20,000 people vote in eight years. American Idol, the highest rated show for the last decade, has had only 12,000 user votes. What does that say? At the very least, it says that Breaking Bad has 5 times more passionate, Internet savvy viewers than NCIS. Who is going to buy that iPad advertised during commercials? The passionate, Internet savvy user? Or the old guy that falls asleep halfway through a procedural?

Try a google search: Breaking Bad fetches 300 million results. NCIS fetched 47 million. Now, check Amazon: The first season of Breaking Bad is #61 among all DVD sales. The first season of NCIS is #1,719. What’s the biggest selling television episode on iTunes right now? This week’s episode of Breaking Bad. Breaking Bad was the fourth most downloaded show on iTunes in ALL of 2011. Has an episode of NCIS ever even broken the Top 50? Moreover, in the last six weeks, the fourth season of Breaking Bad has sold $10 million in DVDs.

There are probably dozens of metrics you could use, and in every single one of them except one — the Nielsen ratings — Breaking Bad would come out ahead. So tell me? Which is the more popular show? The one that you and all your friend watch? Or the one that Nielsen says is most popular?