C3 Future: Hard To Predict Impact On Ratings, Ad Retention

As the first season to use the new "C3" currency looms, data from the summer months reveals a wide variance in how leading network series perform in the new currency versus traditional program ratings. What will happen this fall, especially as DVR use accelerates, remains as tough a riddle as which new shows will make it to the November sweeps.

Similarly, the impact on network revenues--will C3 (commercial ratings covering three days of DVR viewing) ultimately be a boon or bust?--is uncertain. Some hits have caused broadcasters to lose GRPs at a notable near-7% clip on average, for example, NBC's "The Singing Bee." Others give them more ratings points to sell, such as "Family Guy" on Fox. And trends appear to be as hard to divine as the stock market; few consistent themes can be attached to individual networks or genres.

Consider "Family Guy." Younger men who have helped make the animated series a hit appear to be heavy DVR users who have an interest in watching commercials. And that's proving to be a benefit for the network. For the limited 9:30 Sunday airings, which bring in the summer's best ratings for a scripted show in the 18-to-49 demo, the series is delivering a 3.07 average--under the old "live program rating." With the C3 ratings, the performance increases to a 3.13, per Nielsen.



"Family Guy's" 9 p.m. run does the same, rising from a 2.42 to a 2.53 in the 18-to-49 demo. So it would stand to reason that kindred spirit "The Simpsons" might follow suit. Turns out, the series' summer run (May 24 through Aug. 12) has a 6% slide in "old" ratings versus "new." "Live program" average comes in at 2.16, with C3 at a 2.04.

"Family Guy" has one of the lowest median ages on television--in the upper 20s--a likely indicator of considerable DVR usage via tech-savvy younger viewers. But "The Simpsons," while offering a higher median age, also has one of the lowest on TV, in the low 30s.

"It shows that you can't just take one number and conclude this is the number for the network," said Lyle Schwartz, chief researcher at Mediaedge:cia. "You have to look at it show by show."

To be sure, summer viewership is lower than during the season--and an attendant increase in DVR use and penetration this fall could alter the dynamics. Networks, however, can then make a bid to hold viewers by tinkering with pod lengths and offering other stunts.

In the reality area, which accounts for eight of the top-10 summer shows in 18-to-49s, the "Singing Bee" loses some 7% of viewers in the "new" system versus the "old." One reason for reality's popularity: scripted shows are in repeats.

But CBS' Tuesday edition of "Big Brother" gives the network a GRP gain with average C3 ratings slightly higher: 2.24 versus 2.22. "Big Brother" on Tuesday does have the lowest median age--43.6--of any CBS show, perhaps leading to heavy DVR viewing. The show's format, in which episodes build on one another, could also prompt viewers to record and watch later.

Other reality shows post strong retention rates, apparently giving networks little to worry about during the currency transition. "Hell's Kitchen," the summer's top-rated 18-to-49 show, offers a 3.5 average in "live program ratings" and a 3.47 in C3--a 1% drop. The same goes for NBC's "Last Comic Standing," which holds onto 99% of its viewers, as does Fox's Thursday version of "So You Think You Can Dance."

Perhaps one conclusion: viewers of the new karaoke-style series use their DVRs to skip commercials liberally. The summer's second-highest-rated 18-to-49 series, losing almost 7% of viewers with the C3 ratings--Fox's "Don't Forget the Lyrics"--shows a 5% erosion for each of its two weekly versions with the "new" ratings versus the "old." Both series offer mid- to low-level median ages: 45.3 and in the low 40s, respectively.

Back in the scripted realm, outside the Fox animated series and "House," which has a 98% retention rate, other top-10 summer dramas and comedies show decreased retention rates, ranging from "CSI: Miami" and "Law & Order: SVU" in the 5% range to "CSI:NY" and "Two and a Half Men" with average 3% drops.

However, the run of strong-performing dramas--particularly the popular "House" and "CSI" versions--could be at risk for greater GRP losses come fall, when original episodes return. They will likely drive up DVR viewing and perhaps attendant commercial-skipping.

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