Cable Gains In Program Ratings, Wary Of Commercial Ratings

by , Aug 24, 2006, 8:46 AM
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So what if this season doesn't boast a big broadcast hit? More people are watching TV than in previous summers, Turner Broadcasting's top research executive said Wednesday. It gets better: Ad-supported cable beats the seven broadcast networks by two to one. That, of course, is in terms of Nielsen's traditional program ratings. In regards to Nielsen's new commercial ratings, Jack Wakshlag, chief research officer at Turner, said the cable industry has a number of key concerns.

"There is more viewing in the summer now than four years ago in prime-time broadcast," Wakshlag told a group of reporters during his annual end-of-summer TV ratings briefing in New York. One major reason is the growth of ad-supported cable programs during the summer that enjoy substantial viewership.

Moreover, summer viewing consumption keeps gaining on other seasonal periods. Last summer's numbers were down just 3 percent, compared with the regular prime-time 2004-2005 TV season. The average viewing was 57 hours 17 minutes per week, per household.

This season, cable continues to gain on broadcast networks. Ad-supported cable beat the seven broadcast networks by two to one, he said. Ad-supported cable has a 62.2 household share versus 31.1 share for seven broadcast networks. The numbers aren't quite as high so far among 18-49 viewers--cable grabbed a 51.1 share versus 27.4 for the broadcast networks.

Wakshlag also noted that cable TV researchers are wary of Nielsen proposed commercial ratings. The key issue is being accredited by the Media Rating Council. "Without that," he said, "discussion stops."

There are other concerns that Nielsen must resolve before commercial ratings can be considered as industry currency, such as Nielsen's ability to separate program content from commercial content. For instance, Nielsen Monitor Plus is unable to distinguish between national and local cable ads, lumping the local ad minutes into program minutes, resulting in a significantly lower average "commercial rating" for each show. Wakshlag said the solution proposed by Nielsen--using the "cue tones" that signal local cable affiliates to play their local ads--was viable, but "they've still got to buy the equipment, install the equipment, and test it." Wakshlag also cited an example from Nielsen's Npower in May 2006, in which there is no recorded commercial inventory for Turner Broadcasting's "Adult Swim" programming block. Npower is the basis Nielsen will use to determine minute-by-minute ratings, which in turn will determine commercial ratings.

More troubling, he said, is the question of how to weight commercial ratings. "Remember, these aren't really commercial ratings, these are ratings for minutes with commercials in them." Nielsen might suggest weighting the minutes "by the number of seconds of commercials in them, but then you have to be sure Nielsen can measure exactly when the commercials start and finish. I don't think they can right now." Wakshlag said the system currently proposed by Nielsen--tracking audio tags inserted by broadcasters in commercial time--would not be reliable. Some of the tags are selectively muted to avoid disrupting quiet periods in commercials, so Nielsen equipment would miss these markers.

Covering a wide range of research topics, Wakshlag slammed some research companies--especially Forrester Research, which claims TV viewing is declining at the expense of growing digital platforms.

These are research companies that typically ask consumers to record and determine their media usage, he added. In 2005, Forrester Research said consumers' self-reported TV usage was 10.6 hours per person per week, versus Nielsen People Meter's 24.2 hours per week count.

Wakshlag said this means "people cannot accurately report their own media consumption."

New digital platforms target teens and young adults--but there are many myths about their media usage, he said. "Teens are watching more TV than 10 years ago," said Wakshlag. "It hasn't halted TV. All demos are watching more TV."

Cable networks with the biggest viewership gains this summer versus a year ago are: The Biography Channel (a 104 percent hike); Discovery Science (58 percent); BBC America (35 percent); ESPN Classic (33 percent); A&E Network (24 percent); USA (22 percent); and HGTV (20 percent) On the down side: Game Show Network dropped 35 percent, The Weather Channel is down 26 percent, and Fuse is 23 percent lower.

For the summer as a whole, USA Network is No. 1 in every major viewing category in total viewers for all cable networks: adults 18-34, adults 18-49, and adults 25-54. TNT and TBS are second and third, respectively, in all other categories except one--in adults 18-34, TBS was second, MTV was third, and TNT came in fourth.

Among the broadcast networks, NBC made the biggest gains this summer--up 11 percent in adults 18-49 due to more original programming versus previous years. Fox has also done well--up 9 percent. Every other broadcaster is lower: ABC is down 10 percent; CBS is off 5 percent; UPN has fallen 20 percent, and WB dropped 13 percent.

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