Even though Nielsen unveiled plans for the new unduplicated reach loophole back in August, some cable network executives said they were caught by surprise by the "Heroes" decision, because Nielsen executives had previously told them it was unlikely to happen, because a network would have to air the same episode with the same commercials intact, to qualify for the new cumulative audience ratings.
In an indication of how quickly TV programming, scheduling and advertising patterns are beginning to alter, it happened with one of the first episodes of the new prime-time season.
That is bound to stir new dust among Nielsen clients, because Nielsen previously announced that the new cumulative ratings would not be available to cable network programming, something some clients believe creates an inequitable playing field, and potential anomalies in competitive ratings claims.
Ultimately, Nielsen said it was making these changes effective with the 2007-08 TV season to "streamline" its ratings processes and to "harmonize" the average audience ratings between broadcast network and syndicated shows. But the decision has some obvious implications, including a potential boon for boosting audience delivery to network advertisers, and creating inconsistent competitive comparisons between broadcast and cable network programs.
"If ads are the same, it may be a way to boost ratings," said Brad Adgate, senior vice president of corporate research director for Horizon Media, New York. "But at the same time you are losing the sales of that additional inventory [in the second airing of the episode]."
Typically, syndicated and cable TV shows will double-run the same episode with the same advertisers. Historically, Nielsen has generated so-called "gross average audience" ratings, or GAAs, that measure the gross -- not the net, unduplicated audience reach -- of syndicated shows with multiple airings.
Meanwhile, Tuesday's announcement indicated Nielsen also may be planning further changes in the way it processes audience ratings as program scheduling is altered by new forms of digital distribution.
"As the growth of digital platforms and other viewing options emerge, Nielsen is unifying the reporting and processing of all national ratings and developing methods to support the wider array of choices open to all national program providers," read Nielsen's announcement. "One such change is a new option for the way that broadcast program ratings can be calculated."