Who will go first? Network executives feel day-after ratings hurt their image because they don’t take into account DVR-juiced viewing that happens in the following days. They want the focus to shift to their numbers that take into account, say, a week’s worth of time-shifted viewing.
In that vein, there has been some noise about waiting a bit before releasing ratings. So do it. Wait a week to tout how well a new drama premiered last night. Don’t release numbers about how your Tuesday night ratings were the best since 1987 and crushed the competition.
Fox chief Kevin Reilly said this week: “We are way too obsessed on the competition with each other and not enough with the consumer.” Go ahead Fox. If the new Kevin Bacon-starring drama debuts with huge numbers in January, hold off on letting the world know you blew away another network’s hit. Be the first to enact a strict “we’ll only start spinning once DVR numbers” come in.
It will never happen. No network will dare drop out of the night-after publicity game. Makes no sense.
You have to begin touting success immediately to build interest for the next episode. You have to have your NFL announcers promote “TV’s number-one new hit” ASAP. And letting the press know you’re beating the others can lead to stories about leadership, prompting new viewers to tune in to find out what’s making it happen.
Think stories about NBC’s “The Voice” topping Fox’s “American Idol” last winter helped drive some interest in the new kid on the block? No question. If Kevin Reilly wants to move away from going after the competition, how about no press releases on any “Idol” wins in 2013?
CBS CEO Leslie Moonves told the The Wall Street Journal this week that it’s critical that networks get credit for viewing taking place via on-demand, online streaming and DVR platforms. “We're seeing some shows with a million and two million viewers added with delayed viewing,” he said. “These numbers have to be counted, because they are substantial now.”
That makes sense from a publicity perspective. But again, if you hold off on plugging the early returns, you risk losing momentum in many instances.
From a business standpoint, however, Moonves and others who speak about large amounts of DVR viewing not being taken into account are engaged in some rather flimsy spin. The C3 ratings that form the basis for the national TV currency include DVR-enabled viewing over three days after a premiere (albeit using a version of commercial ratings). Now networks want to stretch that out for four more days and usher in a C7 currency.
(Yes, more could be done to capture video-on-demand and online viewing, as Moonves suggests. Nielsen will soon be able to capture pretty much all of it. And, it has an extended screen product that can do a lot of that already.)
Moving to a C7 currency might hearten networks a little, but will it be enough to reverse the ratings slides? Hard to believe. If C3 ratings are down so much, will C7 numbers bring a more satisfying year-over-year trend as the years go by?
Through the end of October this season in the 18-to-49 demo -- by one metric -- Fox was down 19% in the C3 ratings to a 2.34. CBS was down 19% to a 2.19. ABC was down 11% to a 2.15. NBC was up 15% to a leading 2.93.
But some might say even the NBC rise is hardly a renaissance. Strip out its highly rated “Sunday Night Football,” look at ratings for the networks without sports and NBC goes from first place to last.
There are all sorts of reasons for that -- which deal with the nitty-gritty of how Saturday nights are programmed and other factors. But NBC’s non-sports season average in the C3 ratings drops 42% to a 2.07 in the 18-to-49 demo. That still marks a 32% jump over last fall -- the only one among the Big Four that is up in non-sports ratings.
But across every daypart, networks are for the most part down by a lot. C3 ratings through October this season had David Letterman down 15% in the 18-to-49 demo, Jay Leno down 10% and even Jimmy Kimmel, which ABC is putting a big bet on by giving him an earlier time slot, down 6%.
There was an election, so the evening news was surely up, right? No. NBC -- the leader -- was down 9% in C3 in the 25-to-54 news demo (Monday-Friday). ABC was also down 9%. CBS was flat.
In the mornings in the 7 a.m. to 9 a.m. time slot, NBC’s “Today Show” was down 25% in the C3 ratings among 25- to-54-year-olds. The leading “Good Morning America,” however, was up 5% and CBS was about flat for the two hours.
Does holding off on touting ratings while hoping DVR numbers will provide a boost seem foolish? Yes.
DVRs make the future of network TV awful? No way.
Advertisers believe in it -- and even as ratings decline, demand will go up. But even if demand really ebbs, carriage payments and Netflix (and brethren) make it one excellent business to be in. It will be a long time –- if ever -- before network TV is overtaken as such a centerpiece of Americana. Even if interest and affection are more and more on-demand.