shirky.com Clay Shirky's Writings About the Internet
Economics and Culture, Media and Community, Open Source
Web Traffic and TV Ratings
4/20/1999

Last week, according to Nielsen, Yahoo was seen by 100,000 more households than the 
"X-Files." Yahoo is more popular than "Ally McBeal," "NYPD Blue," and "Everybody Loves 
Raymond" by the same per-week measure. Sometime in the next year, Yahoo will almost 
certainly become more popular than "Friends," "Frasier," and "E.R.," which is to say more 
popular than the most popular TV shows going. Big web sites are now as widely seen as any 
TV series. For years, the arguments about "web as mass media" have been conducted in the 
future tense, but the web's ascendancy has to a certain extent already happened, as a 
handful of sites eclipse popular television shows as the most common media experience in 
America. For the foreseeable future, only the Super Bowl and the occasional war will 
propel individual TV programs into prominence over these mega-sites. 

Yahoo is not unique in this; the household reach of several of the current portal sites 
would put them in Nielsen Top 20 as well, and the web population, which currently reaches 
one household in three, is still growing by at least 25% a year. (TV, needless to say, is 
saturated.) These figures mean that the average working American will be online by the 
end of this year, and the average American, period, will be online by the end of next 
year. People dealing with the web as a media channel have often treated it as a small 
market, inherently targeted to rich white men, but the vast sprawling network we have no 
longer matches that description. 

Surveying the reach of sites like Yahoo, it's tempting to conclude that the web has 
finally become like TV, but nothing could be further from the truth. The web's remarkable 
population explosion is only part of the story -- the rest of it is explained by the 
growing fragmentation of the television landscape and the growing centralization of the 
web. From a certain angle, those Nielsen numbers make it look as if the Yahoos of the 
web are turning it into something as centralized as TV. But the real story is more 
complicated -- and more interesting -- than that. 

Mere size doesn't make the web like TV; even TV isn't like TV anymore, and it never will 
be again. Many of our basic assumptions about TV -- its bland content, its culturally 
homogenizing effects, its appeal to the lowest common denominator -- have nothing to do 
with TV as a medium and everything to do with the number of available channels. While the 
web was growing, TV was fragmenting, undergoing a 10-fold increase in channels the last 
20 years. "Gunsmoke," one of the most popular television series ever, was watched by 
almost half of the country in its day, while "Seinfeld," our recently departed popularity 
heavyweight, was only seen by about a quarter of the country. You could conclude that 
"Gunsmoke" was twice as good as "Seinfeld" and indulge yourself in some old-fashioned 
handwringing about how they don't make 'em like they used to, but in reality "Gunsmoke" 
vs. "Seinfeld" is apples and oranges. "Gunsmoke"'s popularity had less to do with its 
content than with the constriction of the old three-network world. 

In the days of three networks, an average show would get a third of the available 
audience, just for showing up. With only three channels, running a prime time show that 
would appeal to 10% of the audience would be money-losing, and running a show that only 
appealed to 1% of that audience would be suicide. From the late '50s to the late '80s, 
the heyday of network TV, anything that got the attention of less than 10 million 
households was niche, and anything that appealed to a paltry million was un-producable. 
It was this pressure, and not anything inherent in the medium itself, that led to "lowest 
common denominator" TV. Locked in a permanent three-way race, the networks would always 
choose something that 50 million people would watch versus something 5 million people 
would rave about. In a world with only ABC, NBC, and CBS, size meant more than enthusiasm, 
day in and day out, for decades. 

In these days of cable, satellites, and the beginnings of digital TV, it's all niche 
programming now. A show that gets 10 million households -- 10 ratings points -- is a Top 
10 hit, and a show that gets a million has gone from unproducible to solid performer. 
The miracle of "Seinfeld" was that any show could reach a quarter of the country in the 
face of this proliferation of choices. "E.R." the post-"Seinfeld" heavyweight, only 
reaches 20% of the country, and no show that has launched this season has broken 15%. The 
handwringing about the end of "Seinfeld" was occasioned in part by the recognition that 
a show that reached even a quarter of the country at once was the last of a dying breed. 
Sic transit nihilum mundi. 

Even as TV has become more decentralized because of the increase in the number of 
available channels, the core of the web has become more centralized under the same 
pressures. The web removes technological bottlenecks, but creates attention bottlenecks 
-- unlike TV, whose universe is so small that it can be chronicled in a single magazine, 
the web is a vast and unmanageable riot of possibility and disappointment. In this 
environment, "surfing" as a strategy is dead. With a remote, a reasonably dexterous 
thumb, and five seconds a channel, a TV viewer can survey the available TV channels in 
less than five minutes. On the web, assuming that sites loaded instantaneously, five 
seconds a site would require four months of 24/7 surfing just to see what was out there. 
Enter the search engines and "portals," the guides to web content. It's no accident that 
the web sites that would rate in Nielsen's Top 20 are all portals of one sort or another, 
and this leads to a curious situation: the web, seemingly so decentralized, may actually 
be more hit driven than TV, if a web "hit" is defined by user attention. 

Jakob Nielsen, the web "usability" guru behind useit.com and a principal, with Don 
Norman, of the NielsenNorman Group, proposes a formula for understanding this enormous 
range of web-site popularity. Nielsen suggests that traffic to web sites lies on a 
"Zipf" distribution, whose effects can be understood this way: the 100th most popular 
web site would get 1/100th of the traffic of the most popular site (Yahoo), and the 
2,000,000th most popular web site would see 1/2,000,000th of Yahoo's traffic, leading to 
a curve that looks like this: 

(SEE ATTACHED FILE - ZIPFLINEAR.GIF) 

Nielsen describes this pattern as having: 

a few elements that score very high (the left tail in the diagram) 
a medium number of elements with middle-of-the-road scores (the middle part of the 
diagram) 
a huge number of elements that score very low (the right tail in the diagram)
He likens this distribution of web sites to the distributions of words in the English 
sentences: a few ubiquitous words (a, and, the), many frequent words (toy, table, run) 
and a vast collection of rare words (marzipan, cerulean, noninterdenominationally). 
If Nielsen is right, then the web is more decentralized than TV when considered as a 
whole, but more centralized than TV in its most popular elements. While the web's five 
million sites dwarf the TV universe, a Zipf distribution means that a mere 1% of 
existing web sites account for 70% of total web traffic. 

TV is a fixed sum game -- when one TV show's ratings go up, another's necessarily go 
down. On the web, on the other hand, the more small sites there are (the right-hand tail 
of Nielsen's diagram), the more need there is for the Yahoos of the world to make sense 
of it. It is this effect -- the left tail grows up as the right tail grows out -- which 
accounts for Yahoo's powerful reach relative to TV shows. The web still only reaches a 
third of American households, but it's better to have half of that third than 15% of the 
total. Speculating on the financial effects of this niche-oriented universe, Nielsen goes 
on to say: "[T]he greatest value of the web is narrowcasting of very specific services 
that people can't easily get otherwise... My original article on the Zipf distribution 
predicted that the value of a page view for a huge site would be about a cent, but the 
actual value these days seem to be close to half a cent, if you look at Yahoo's latest 
quarterly report. So I may have over-estimated the value of a page view for the big 
sites. For the small sites, I estimated a value of a dollar per page view, and that may 
even turn out to be an under-estimate as we get more business-to-business use of the web 
going." 

This is where web-TV convergence is really happening -- not converging content but 
converging landscape. Both the web and TV are being divided into three tiers; a handful 
of huge properties (Yahoo; the Superbowl), a small group of large properties (AltaVista; 
"Dharma and Greg"), and an enormous group of small properties (EarAllergy.com; "Dr. 
Quinn"). The TV curve will always be flatter than the web's, of course -- the difference 
between a hit TV show and an average one could be a factor of 100 (10% of the audience 
to .1%), while the difference between a web mega-site and someone's collection of wedding 
pictures easily exceeds a million-fold -- but the trends are similar. As advertisers, 
content creators and users get used to this changed landscape, the advantage may move 
from simply being the biggest to being the best loved -- a world where it is better to 
be loved by 50 thousand than to be liked by five million. 

In the end, these three tiers will be what drive media strategy. The bottom tier -- the 
millions of sites with very little traffic -- will be composed almost entirely of labors 
of love, or expensive subscription-driven sites with very selective offerings. The middle 
tier -- say, the 1000th to 100,000th most popular sites -- will use its closer connection 
with its users' interests while banding together into networks, web rings and so on in 
order to aggregate their reach. The top tier, the Yahoos and Geocities of the world, may 
be victimized by its own success, managing increasing problems of supply and demand. If 
the reach of these sites is too vast, it may become hard to support their current 
advertising rates, in the face of a potential oversupply. The two things these mega-
sites have on their side are laziness -- it will always be easier for advertisers to 
write one check -- and the possibility that they can become so large that they can segment 
themselves into internal niches. Yahoo's strategy may match that of Proctor and Gamble, 
which makes several brands of detergent so that no matter which public brand you choose, 
it's a P&G product. Yahoo could become both the 800-pound gorilla and the scrappy 
underdog (think GM's Saturn car division, or ATT's "Lucky Dog" phone service) by running 
both the centralized portal and as many of the niche sites as they can. 

The people preaching traditional ideas of convergence between the web and TV made a 
fundamental miscalculation -- betting on a stable TV landscape, and on the premise that 
when the web got that big it would be like TV too -- when the reality is much more fluid. 
The web is not a mass medium, and it never will be, but neither is TV anymore. Both 
mediums reach large numbers of people, but now they reach them in self-selecting groups, 
not as part of a largely undifferentiated lump of "America" the way "Gunsmoke" or even 
"Seinfeld" did. In the end, the 40-year reign of the Big Three networks may have been an 
unusual island of stability in an ordinarily chaotic media universe. We will always have 
massive media, but the days of mass media are over, killed by the explosion of possibility 
and torn into a thousand niches. 


Write clay@shirky.com with questions or comments.

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shirky.com Clay Shirky's Writings About the Internet
Economics and Culture, Media and Community, Open Source