Web Traffic and TV Ratings
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
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
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.