It's Time To Scrap C3 And Bring Back Program Ratings

C3 ratings for most network and prime-time programs are higher than their live program ratings.  Let’s think about that for a second.  Half the country doesn’t even have a DVR, yet Nielsen reports that more people watch just the commercial minutes (over three days) of a typical series, than watch the actual program at the time it is broadcast. This is so ridiculous on its face that the industry should stand up as one and scream WTF!  

One simple question: When you watch something on your DVR, do you watch the commercials, or do you fast-forward through them?  What makes you think other people use their devices any differently?

Let’s not forget, in 2007 C3 ratings were designed as a one- or two-year fix until industry post-buy systems could handle minute-by-minute data.  Nielsen conducted virtually no research to actually “validate” C3.  

Nine years ago, the urgency of measuring delayed viewing took precedence over the traditional rigor Nielsen and the industry previously applied to any new currency measurement. Unfortunately, this marked the beginning of Nielsen prioritizing getting products to market over good research and extensive testing (as the company acknowledged in a subsequent national client meeting).



Some still believe that C3 takes fast-forwarding into account, and fully measures exposure to commercial minutes.  But because of the way Nielsen measures the average minute, this is not entirely correct.  Rather than taking the majority of viewing to a given minute, it counts the plurality of viewing.  In other words, in a given minute, if you are watching 20 seconds of ABC, and 10 seconds each of four other networks, you are counted as watching ABC for the full minute.  If there is no plurality for that minute, Nielsen looks at the previous minute.  

In the real world, the plurality and majority of live viewing to a minute are often the same.  When you DVR a program and play it back, however, there is only one channel.  Any viewing becomes the plurality.  So if you are playing back a program and watch just five seconds of a commercial minute and fast-forward through the rest of the commercials, you are still counted as watching the entire minute.

When C3 officially became the agreed-on surrogate for commercial measurement, I wrote an article stating that the real danger was in the industry thinking we were getting closer to actual commercial measurement, when we might really be getting further away. I figured that once a new Nielsen currency measurement system was in place, it would be virtually impossible to change it again anytime soon.  That was nine years ago.  But that’s what happens when one research company controls the marketplace currency.

Aside from not accurately measuring fast-forwarding, anyone in research knows some of the basic flaws in C3, and why it’s not a good surrogate for individual commercial minutes:  

Ratings at the beginning of a TV show are often dramatically different from ratings toward the end of the show. So averages don’t really represent individual commercial minutes. An analysis I did a few years back showed that roughly two-thirds of all “A” minutes (the first minute of a commercial pod) over-delivered the C3 average, while about two-thirds of all other minutes under-delivered C3.

When looking at program ratings for an hour-long show, we are averaging 60 consecutive minutes of audience data. C3 ratings for a 60-minute show, however, are typically based on about 15 scattered minutes of data (only one to three minutes for many syndicated series).  This makes C3 ratings significantly less stable than the full program ratings we previously used – particularly for lower rated cable programs and syndicated series.

The industry should stop pretending that C3 or C7 provide an indication of commercial performance, and go back to measuring full program ratings. Only live and live + 7 ratings should be reported, and buyers and sellers can negotiate which to use based on individual advertiser needs.  Those who want to use actual commercial minute ratings can easily do so.

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  1. Ed Papazian from Media Dynamics Inc, November 9, 2016 at 4:43 p.m.

    Steve, although I was one of those advocating the transition to commercial ratings ten years ago, I assumed that Nielsen would develop a proper way to tabulate this metric--perhaps averaging all of the seconds when ads were on. Instead, we got a potentially misleading compromise---sort of a winner takes all one minute "total audience", which only a small number of people really understand. I never believed that Nielsen was measuring commercial viewing---as this is virtually impossible---but deleting dial switching and fast forwarding "avoidance" seemed like positive step at the time. Also, the reduction was not a constant across all program types and channels. Some had considerably higher degrees of overt commercial avoidance than others---an important consideration for time buyers to be made aware of.

    As for the idea of going back to "program" ratings---by which I assume you mean an average minute rating for all of the minutes a show is aired, regardless of what content is on the screen--- while this may give a more stable rating base for individual telecasts, it would include those minutes where the audience is "watching" only program content and present an inflated picture as ratings would, in most cases, be higher than when commercials were on. Moreover, as most national buys are total GRP-guaranteed for all shows an advertiser runs ads in, the issue of per telecast stability is less important than were ratings guaranteed for every single ad placement----something no seller in his/her right mind would even contemplate. When you look at a total corporate ad schedule for a particular daypart on a network or cable channel, involving dozens of shows and many telecasts in a quarter---which is how such audience guarantee deals are usually constructed---with hundreds or even thousands of GRPs involved, per telecast rating stability is not that big a problem---the many ups are probably cancelled out by the many downs.

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