Does Viewer Intensity Matter?

The highest-rated original scripted series last season among adults 18-49 and 25-54 was AMC’s “The Walking Dead.”  Nothing else was even close.  Among broadcast series, FOX’s “Empire” and CBS’s “The Big Bang Theory” were tops.  

Only 42% of the “Walking Dead” and “Big Bang Theory” audiences watched them live.  For “Empire,” it was 56%.

Off-network repeats of “The Big Bang Theory” (TBS) and “Criminal Minds” (ION) got live + 7 ratings that were less than 15% of their first-run CBS counterparts. Yet both ranked among the top 5 most-watched series based on time spent viewing – 90% of TBS’ and 96% of ION’s audiences watched them live.  

Since the advent of DVRs, there has been virtually no research (made public) on the “value” of original scripted series versus off-network repeats.  This is not surprising ,since the broadcast networks don’t want to highlight the key weakness of their higher-rated series (less live viewing, greater commercial avoidance), while many cable networks that air both, don’t want to play one against the other.  



For original scripted broadcast network series, the advantages are obvious: much higher ratings and reach, and high-intensity viewing.  Original cable series don’t always have higher ratings than off-network shows, but they do tend to have higher reach and higher intensity viewing (I’ve conducted research showing that live viewing of original scripted series has advertising brand recall about 15% higher than off-network series).  

On the downside, often more than half the audience is watching via DVR and fast-forwarding through most commercials.  Nielsen does not specifically measure fast-forwarding, but every study I’ve conducted or seen has indicated that anywhere between 65% and 80% of DVR viewers fast-forward through commercials most or all of the time.  I’ve done research that showed commercial brand recall being about three times higher among viewers who watch live versus time-shifting with DVRs.

When people watch something on DVR it is, by definition, appointment viewing.  They are doing significantly less multitasking and other activities than when they are watching something live.  Those who take the time and effort to DVR something are more in a show’s core audience than other viewers.

Off-network series are viewed mostly live, which is a significant advantage over original scripted series when it comes to commercial exposure. But the viewing experience is lower intensity.  People watch off-network repeats largely when nothing else is on. They are most often a second-choice, fallback position. The majority of viewers who watch off-network series several times a week do so because it’s comfort food.  Viewing tends to be less attentive.  

Off-network series also tend to be heavily viewed by a relatively small group of people.  If you look at “Criminal Minds” on ION, for example, it aired more than 600 telecasts last season. It’s one of the most watched entertainment series on television, but it only reached about 15% of adults 25-54 during the entire season.  That’s an extraordinary amount of viewing by an extremely loyal, but relatively small group that is hard to reach elsewhere.  

As the industry continues to move toward cross-platform and “total content” audience measurement, we should not lose sight of the fact that in-home viewing on a television set is still by far the biggest slice of the pie, and will continue to be for a long time to come. Understanding the dynamics of DVR time-shifting and how people watch and relate to different types of programming should be one of the most important topics of research for advertisers.

6 comments about "Does Viewer Intensity Matter?".
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  1. Ed Papazian from Media Dynamics Inc, January 18, 2017 at 5:55 p.m.

    Steve, an interesting subject but I might take issue with some points--or, perhaps, clarify them a but. For example, it should surprise no one that adults who watch a telecast of an original primetime series are more likely to recall its commercials than those watching a syndicated rerun of the same show years later. One possible explanation is the time the episode airs. Usually---though not always---the rerun plays in the daytime or the early/late evening hours, not in primetime. Also, primetime, in general, features a lower commercial load, hence a primetime viewer is less likely to zap a commercial break or leave the room.

    Regarding your comment on syndicated shows like "Criminal Minds" being a most watched series but attaining only a 15% reach among adults 25-54 per season, I would ask what the average minute rating for the show was for adults 25-54 to calculate the average frequency. If, for example, the AA rating was 1.0, that means that the show garnered 600 episode GRPs ( using average minute  ratings ) but, taking your figure, reached only 15%, netting an average episode frequency of 40. Frankly, I have a hard time swallowing that estimate, which means that some of those people watched 100 episodes, others watched 50, some saw 20 and others viewed only 2. Just out of curiosity was that 15% reach figure a Nielsen tally or was it based on a poll of respondents, relying on their memories.

    My experience regarding syndicated shows in general, is that because they are reruns and up to half of the viewers may have seen the episode before, that they usually snare many fairly less frequent viewers and, because of this, attain pretty large reach levels in relation to their average minute rating size. One reason for this is the fact that such shows---especially on cable---are played over and over in many dayparts, which means that a fan of the show is less worried about missing a particular episode than is the case with a broadcast primetime "original" .

  2. Steve Sternberg from The Sternberg Report, January 18, 2017 at 7:35 p.m.

    Hi Ed-

    it was my mistake not to clarify that all the research and data I was referring to was based on Primetime.  I'd like to blame the space constraints, but it was just an oversight. 

  3. dorothy higgins from Mediabrands WW, January 19, 2017 at 11:24 a.m.

    Ed, I think you are vastly overrating ION ratings.  Here is thir own data: CRIMINAL MINDS: ION Television’s highest-rated series for six straight years, averaging over 1 million house¬holds and 600,000 adults 25 to 54; the second-most-watched drama on television; Season 9 on ION averaged over 1.5 million total viewers.  Out of 130MM A25-54, that is an average rating of 0.46. 15% reach for this is actually pretty decent. 

  4. Ed Papazian from Media Dynamics Inc, January 19, 2017 at 12:49 p.m.

    Thanks, Dorothy. I was  creating a hypothetical example in my first reply.Regarding the "Criminal Minds" ratings on ION, which Steve has clarified refer only to primetime airings, if we use the actual average minute rating you supplied---.46---as surrogates for average telecast reach levels---actually they understate the case due to commercial zapping ----this means that the average adult aged 25-54, who saw one or more primetime episodes of the series over a 12-month period ( 15% ), watched only 18 out of a possible 600 installments, including many repeats. I submit that this is not an exceptional demonstration of viewer loyalty---it amounts to only one viewing every three weeks. Indeed, it might be interpreted as evidence of relatively less loyalty.

  5. Steve Sternberg from The Sternberg Report, January 19, 2017 at 1:35 p.m.

    Ed, that might be true for the average adult 25-54 in the total U.S.  I was referring to the people who are actually watching (the 15%).  It is an extrasordinary amount of viewing from a small, but extremely loyal group.  If you calculate time spent viewing, I believe Criminal Minds on ION ranked 4th of all primetime scripted series last season out of all broadcast and cable series.

  6. Ed Papazian from Media Dynamics Inc, January 19, 2017 at 1:47 p.m.

    Steve, I merely took the average minute rating that Dorothy supplied--.46%---and applied it to your figure of 600 primetime installments for the season. This yielded 276 program viewing GRPs for the year for this show. Dividing that by your A25-54 reach figure of 15% for the program across the full season yields an average episode frequency figure of 18---per "Criminal Mind's"  total season prime time viewers, not the total U.S.

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