Once again, the seemingly simple picture of TV ratings reveals that there is a lot more behind the pixels.
In a rare occurrence, "American Idol" was not the most-viewed broadcast show last week. ABC's "Dancing with the Stars" had the top honors, with 23.0 million viewers versus 21.8 million for "Idol."
It must be said "Stars" and "Idol" do not compete head-to-head in the same time period: The "Stars" performance show is on Mondays at 8 p.m.; "Idol" goes at 8 p.m. on Tuesday. (In February, NBC's Vancouver Olympics topped the singing competition show in head-to-head comparison -- an even rarer event.
As in February, TV advertisers might be offer a mere shrug of the shoulders while looking at last week's results. Among broader and key viewers, 18-49, "Idol" still bettered "Stars" with a 7.7/21 versus a "Stars" 5.6/16.
"Idol" is still way ahead of "Stars" in the viewers that matter most: younger viewers and, in particular, young female viewers. (Now, you know why CW is focusing in this area, as is Oxygen cable networks, and a few others.)
It's not that total viewership isn't a valuable indicator -- just not a currency that matters, at least for higher-rated shows. For lesser-rated cable and syndication programs, total viewership can still be a stronger indicator of a show's performance.
Still, any media buyer worth his salt is still going to measure results against specific demographics -- if not income, if not engagement, if not intent to buy -- or, in the future, a host of other more valuable metrics to come.
In the slew of decreasing ratings for broadcast network shows, more of these weird associations seem to pop up -- sending the causal TV business observer down the wrong path.
Take NBC's "Parenthood, a new show that has had some success. On Tuesday, it pulled in its first win over another 10 p.m. show, CBS' "The Good Wife," in key 18-49 viewers: a 2.6/7 to "Wife"'s 2.3/7. But "Hood"'s overall viewership was half that of "Wife" " -- 6.3 million for "Parenthood," 12 million for "Wife."
With these mixed signals, there is little doubt advertisers and media executives want to get beyond traditional demographics and even current commercial ratings to measure the effectiveness of their media buys.
The upfront selling period is about to commence. While much of the same media buying process will still be in force, there seems to be a transition period afoot for all of TV.
That means even more media research to do than ever before. But this may mean less-easy answers.