Reporting On TV Ratings

In a year of great Sunday night television programming, the evening of Feb. 9, 2014 stands out for the diversity and volume of its must-see offerings.  In addition to the winter Olympics on NBC, viewers could, for starters, choose from the Beatles anniversary special on CBS, “Downton Abbey” on PBS, “The Walking Dead” on AMC and “True Detective” on HBO.  If there’s still such a thing as “appointment television,” then viewers were double-booked that night.

The next morning the media was quick to report the winners.  The Olympics won the night, with 26.3 million viewers and a 7.2 rating among 18-49s. “The Walking Dead” scored 15.8 million viewers and an 8.2 rating, while The Beatles attracted 14.1 million viewers and a 2.1 rating.  There were no ratings for “Downton Abbey”--  and “True Detective” had 2.0 million viewers and a 0.8 rating.

Lacking context, however, I’m not sure how much real information was imparted by these reports.  The media is quick to condemn the TV industry for living in the past, but the way they report ratings hasn’t changed much in 35 years. 



Ratings stories are aimed at two separate audiences.  There’s the non-industry, general-interest reader with a rooting interest in seeing how his or her own viewing preferences stack up against the rest of the TV audience.  Then there’s a much smaller audience of network executives, agencies and advertisers who care about the business implications of the ratings. 

Contemporary media coverage fails at both tasks because it provides an incomplete picture of how many people are actually watching and distorts the picture on the business side.

In terms of how many people are actually watching a TV show, we all know that time-shifting via DVRs, VOD and the Internet has dramatically changed the way people watch TV.  By definition, the overnight ratings only capture how many people watched a show the night before.

And that’s just traditional television viewing, anyway.  Many viewers watch on computers and mobile devices that are not included in the standard ratings.  There’s considerable finger-pointing over why this is the case, but regardless of the reason, the amount of streaming of individual TV programs is not made public.

There are some general inferences that can be made from past behavior, of course.  Live (or nearly live) events like the Olympics usually don’t generate large time-shifted audiences, while time-shifting can increase viewership by up to 50% for scripted programming. But regardless of these trends, we won’t know for sure how various shows will actually compare against each other until Nielsen’s time shifted ratings come out several weeks later.

At which point, will anyone care? The media seem to assume, perhaps correctly, that the public has a short attention span and isn’t interested in the final ratings of a show several weeks after it aired.

As imperfect as the coverage of the SIZE of the audience is, the media’s reporting on WHO is watching is even more distorted.  Maybe I find the media’s fixation on the 18-49 demo so vexatious because I’ve aged out of that cohort, but I also think it’s a lazy way to look at the business impact of viewing.

There was a time -- 30 years ago -- when a television program’s success among 18- to 49-year-olds was a rough substitute for its success as a business operation.  But when the last Baby Boomer turns 50 at the end of 2014, this giant cohort will no longer be included in the 18-49 demographic.  Are we to believe that advertisers will no longer care about Boomers? Today’s 50+ viewers, who have more money and are more open to new brands and new products than previous generations, are much more attractive advertising targets than they were 30 years ago. 

The emphasis on 18-49s led to a few headlines reporting that “The Walking Dead” beat the Olympics on Feb. 9 because it performed better in the key demo.  By that logic, The Beatles special and “The Real Housewives of Atlanta” were tied that night, since they both had an 18-49 rating of 2.1 (even though the Beatles attracted 9.5 million more overall viewers).  Perhaps I’m wrong (and I’m open to being corrected) but I think the spots on The Olympics were more valuable than the ones on “The Walking Dead,” and the Beatles’ spots were more valuable than the ones on “Desperate Housewives.”

Keep in mind too that live-same day ratings, regardless of the demographic, are not the currency that is traded on.  For most programming, the metric that counts is the C3 ratings, which is a measure of how many people have seen the commercials by three days after the original airing.  In other words, the Live-Same Day 18-49 rating that dominates all the coverage has not even been a real business metric for more than five years.

The media is not wholly to blame for this state of affairs.  They only report on the numbers that the networks and agencies feed them.  But members of the press could refuse to highlight 18-49 as a key metric, provide caveats in their coverage that make it clear that the overnight numbers are only part of the story, and follow up with C3 ratings when they become available.  I know that old habits die hard, but maybe it’s time to bring TV reporting into the 21st century.

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