Why do we need a TV season? That was the provocative question that NBC’s research head Allan Wurtzel posed to Bill Carter in The New York Times last week. After all, television is in business 52 weeks a year, and DVRs and the Internet have given viewers the power to set their own schedules. Logically we should treat television as a year-round, not seasonal, enterprise.
The answer to why there are so many new shows in September is pretty straightforward. Summer is a notoriously slow time for television, the Olympics notwithstanding, so the networks prefer not to program a schedule that has first-run shows airing when viewers are on vacation or preoccupied with outdoor activities.
Further, as Carter’s Times piece reports, there is a “cadence” to the television year. Ads are pre-sold at the May upfronts for shows that will begin broadcasting three months later. The knowledge that new programming starts in September gives producers, actors, agents and everyone else involved in the making of television the ability to plan their year.
But why is there a television “season” that lasts three-quarters of the year rather than a full twelve months? Carter asserts that the season is “defined arbitrarily and rather arcanely by the Nielsen Company as the 34.5 weeks between mid-September and mid-May.” As someone who used to work there, I say, poor Nielsen; always blamed for everything odd and weird in TV. The truth is that Nielsen has advisory policy committees coming out its ears, and the definition of the TV season is one of those things that emerged from a compromise among the various TV networks. The TV season lives because the networks want it to live.
As I’ve noted before, Nielsen produces two sets of numbers. There are the numbers that networks and advertisers use to determine how much commercials cost. In prime time, the most important number is the so-called C3 rating, the average viewing of the commercials within a show within three days of the first broadcast, but other metrics are used to set ad rates too. These numbers are almost never reported publicly.
Then there are all the ratings numbers you read about in the paper: the overnights, the early-morning “fast ratings” or the mid-morning metered market numbers. These are “bragging rights” numbers released daily by the networks in dueling press releases. Almost none of them have any commercial importance since they are not used for trading, yet they dominate the discussion about the popularity of various TV shows.
Last spring Carter and Brian Stelter had another interesting Times piece pointing out that much of what we think we know about television ratings is off-base because media reporting does not take DVR recording into account. “American Idol,” for example, which is mostly watched live, was not the most popular television show last year, because when you added in DVR viewing, “Modern Family” came out on top. Yet “Modern Family” is not considered the juggernaut it really is, except at the Emmys.
It’s hard to overestimate how important “bragging rights” are to the networks. It’s a major reason that the “television season” exists in the first place. The networks want to compete for the highest-rated shows for the year. and they want the finish line to be in May. They also want to “win the night,” even though this has no commercial value. Then they take out full-page ads announcing that their show or network is the “most watched” or “America’s favorite.”
Bragging rights might first appear to be primarily about executives’ egos, but there may be something to the idea that perception becomes reality. A show that becomes trendy with the media can attract more viewers. If network PR departments can create buzz about a show through non-significant ratings, they can actually increase the commercially important ones.
Still, it’s strange that the bragging goes on vacation when the rest of us do. As Alan Wurtzel points out, television never takes a night off, not even in the summer. You can bet that the networks collect ad revenue in June, July and August, even if it’s off-season. But there are no serious bragging rights in the summer once the TV season is over. Off-season viewing counts (for revenue) but it doesn’t count (for status). Go figure.