YOU know that parlour game where you nominate all the people, living or dead, you’d most like to invite to a dinner party? People usually say things like Nelson Mandela, or Mick Jagger, or Einstein, or, if you’re most of the blokes I know, Miranda Kerr (I suppose she wouldn’t eat much, so you’d save money on prep).

Not me. I’m not interested in dining with supermodels and rock stars.

Actually that’s a big lie. I definitely am (just in case there are any reading this who would like to extend an invitation), but for the purposes of this next part of the column let’s pretend I’m not. Because actually the people I’d most like to have round for a meal are the anonymous hordes recruited by Nielsen’s OzTAM service to provide our national television ratings.
There are a few thousand of them so it’d have to be a big meal – maybe a couple of lambs on the spit – but it’d be worth it, just so I could sit them all down and say, ‘‘Who ARE you people and why are you ruining TV for the rest of us?’’

Because when it comes down to it, it’s this group of people – from about three thousand homes across Adelaide, Sydney, Brisbane, Melbourne and Perth, and about two thousand in regional areas – that determines which shows are ‘‘popular’’ every night and, by consequence, which get renewed and which get

Basically, it’s their fault we’re being subjected to yet another series of MasterChef, while brilliant dramas like The Americans and Hannibal get pushed further and further back in the nightly schedule.

Thanks to a little magic box installed on their televisions, Neilsen can tell what shows these people are watching and when, data which it then extrapolates into ‘‘viewing estimates’’ which the networks then either trumpet triumphantly or attempt to bury.

Now I realise there’s probably more complicated maths going into these calculations than my decidedly non-numeric brain can comprehend, but I can’t help feeling puzzled that our ratings are based on just 0.02 per cent of the population.

I’m not saying the statistics aren’t accurate – the industry accepts they are. But when all I hear about every
Wednesday is what happened on Game of Thrones the previous night, yet the official OzTAM ratings say the most watched program was The Block Sky High, I scratch my head a bit.

Because here’s the thing: The other week I bought my own ‘‘magic box’’.

Like the Nielsen boxes it plugs into my telly, but it doesn’t measure broadcast television like they do – quite
the opposite. It actually subverts that whole system by allowing me to stream shows direct from the internet.

These days I’m less likely to tune into a show when it airs on TV than I am to fire up my little device and watch it a week or even several weeks later on a ‘‘catch-up’’ webTV service.

Like all those Game of Thrones fans,more than a million of whom downloaded the show’s final episode last
week, I’m more likely to watch programs I’ve gotten off the internet as our free-to-air networks have canned or decided to ignore them.

While Nielsen’s American branch has announced it will soon start including internet ‘‘streaming figures’’ in its
ratings estimates, OzTAM is still somewhat on the fence saying it is ‘‘investigating’’ this option.

Ultimately it all comes down to advertising – ratings means dollars for the networks, and it’s much harder to quantify that in an online environment.

But with more people now watching TV content on their laptop, tablet and smartphones, our ratings system is going to have to change if it’s going to remain an accurate reflection of Australians’ viewing habits.

First published in The Advertiser, June 20, 2013.