Ratings are about a lot of things. Who’s watching what; the nuances of key demos; the almighty advertising dollar. Most importantly they’re about the battle, and who’s winning it.

I’ve learned a lot coming to this media commentary game about the ratings and what they mean and what they impact. I know I still have a lot to learn. What I have come to understand from people who are interested in ratings (and given all major newspapers publish them daily on their websites) it’s that the general public are interested in the figures but reasonably only as a form of self-validation: You watched the finale of The Voice Australia in 2013? So did the majority of the television-watching population of Australia, so you must have made the smarter choice (even though it was well down on the 2012 finale and My Kitchen Rules drew a sizeable 1.39 million viewers against it – it’s all about the moment).

By following the ratings you can be affirmed not only you made the popular choice, but you have some grounds by which to support your claim on your favourite social media platform and ammunition to fire back at those that disagree.

“16-39”, “18-49”, “25-54”, “Grocery Buyers + Children” – these things mean little to the average punter and exist only to ensure the selling of advertising at the right price to the right people. We know commercial television exists to make money and these figures are the all important backbone. Then you split the country into states, East Coast (Qld+NSW+Vic) and nationally.

For the average punter (and the papers and this website), “Total People” are where it’s at. Who won what at when*.

Many a column inch has been dedicated to the merciless killing of programs based on how few people watched it last night. Australia has a rich though reasonably short history of leaning on the overnight figures to pillory television that didn’t measure up. While programs may have received bad reviews in the past it’s only been in the last couple of years that TV shows have suffered at the hands of the audience/media response to see them shunted (Excess Baggage (Nine then to GO!), Reef Doctors (Ten then to Eleven)) or dumped altogether (Everybody Dance Now (Ten), The White Room (Seven)).

The less said about The Resort (Ten), the better.

Very few shows have seen a full run once the numbers start to fall, though notably Tricky Business (Nine), The Shire (Ten) and Brynne: My Bedazzled Life (Seven) all lasted out their seasons due to the suppositions that the respective networks had no ‘Plan B’.

The war at 6pm has long been held as the benchmark for ratings success – whoever has the most successful news service will win at six, and this then forms the basis of what programmers hope will bleed into primetime though since the invention of the remote control that has been a difficult proposition to lean on. Nonetheless hours of effort and countless thousands of dollars have been poured into being able to say “Network X has the number one News program”.

With competition reaching fever pitch between Seven and Nine the all important weekly win for News and Current Affairs continues to allow the Networks to be a burr under each other’s saddles.

In the 40 week ratings year, they keep a very close count. Press releases are fired off as missiles across the pseudo-demilitarized zone that is the print media. Depending on who you speak to right now (and it will vary state to state), Seven are winning the year nationally and in some markets while Nine are also winning the year nationally and in some markets.

Yes, both Seven and Nine are winning nationally. At the same time.

Traditionally (as traditional as you can be when the current recorded ratings system is only 12 years old) a News week was always measured Monday-Friday with Saturday and Sunday considered to be a grouped exception. When you won a News week, it meant you had more viewers on average Mon-Fri than the other guys. They may have won the weekend News but you won the week and that’s what counted at the end of the ratings year.

And that’s been the agreed measurement – a News week is Mon-Fri. Until recently.

With every eye counting and every bit of positive PR so crucial to the way a Network projects itself, what makes up a News week has been called into question. Seven now claim a News week runs Sunday to Saturday inclusive (i.e. all seven days), while Nine maintain it’s Mon-Fri. This subtle change is significant.

If you follow a Nine News week they’re winning nationally based on their Mon-Fri figures, supported by whitewash results in Sydney and Melbourne and a nailbiting race in Brisbane (which also gives them the lead in the East Coast figures).

Seven have a near monopoly in Adelaide and Perth where Nine is run by WIN Television** giving them a solid victories to prop up lacklustre performances from the Sydney and Melbourne programs. Brisbane becomes lynchpin to their News week ratings win claim as Nine fall away on the weekends in Qld allowing them to pick up at least one valuable nightly win to add to the 7 day average they promote.

6pm Sunday Night remains one of the most consistently competitive timeslot in the Australian free-to-air broadcast schedule. Both Seven and Nine draw well over one million viewers each as people prepare to settle back into the work week with their own weekend-ending routines that have usually always started with the News. Both Networks recognise this in various ways though most significantly by having their weekday Newsreader(s) present Sun-Thu and the weekend person/team read Fri/Sat.

It’s reasonable to understand Seven’s claim. News doesn’t stop on the weekend and the ratings are recorded, so why should they discount the figures? Nine retort that’s never how the weeks have been measured and the gentleman’s agreement for Mon-Fri still stands. Given when their presenters sit in the chairs, are they both wrong? Should a News week be Sun-Thu?

We’re addicted too. More hours on the commercial broadcasters are now dedicated to news and current affairs per day than have been in television’s history. Just look at Nine & Seven’s 3pm-6pm schedules: Seven has 2.5 hours of “News***” in that three hour timeslot, beating Nine’s 1 hour 55 minutes. The Networks know we care and so continue to mush it up and force-feed it to us in case we should change the channel. More screens in more households means the kids are likely on ABC2 or GO! anyway, allowing Mum to watch her stories presented by other mums and that hot English former rugby league player.

With 21 weeks won needed to allow a Network to declare victory (we enter Week 20 of the 2013 ratings year today) expect crowing from both sides soon as they wait to each declare themselves the winner of News for the year. Sometime in August. Full page ads in papers and promos will follow. “Network X is number one in news and current affairs.”

And we’ll still source more of our news at a time that suits us from a diverse number of locations beyond these traditional News programs than ever before.

*Don’t even start on peak figures thanks to the minute by minute ratings through a show. All figures referenced from OzTAM ratings which look at the five mainland capital cities (BNE, SYD, MEL, ADL, PER). Everything else is considered regional and only included to inflate a show’s Total people and make the number bigger. It’s legit but somewhat convenient as while broadcast TV viewers year on year are declining regional figures have been mostly ignored. Until they were needed.

**There are changes in the wind, however, with Nine Entertainment Co agreeing to purchase Adelaide from WIN and have the option when/if Federal Government reach rules are relaxed to purchase Perth.

***You can’t really call The Daily Edition “News”, even though that’s how it’s billed in part.