"Confusing? You bet," Sternberg confirms, cautioning that the new, multiple sources of data means "comparisons with last season can be misleading (even for identical streams of data)." In other words it remains unclear whether the networks are up, down or sideways.
The Magna report, which reads like Madison Avenue's version of the Japanese film classic "Rashomon," which tells the same story from the subjective perspective of three different characters. Here are the three perspectives, according to Magna.
Live program ratings. These ratings, which were the currency of the TV marketplace last year, include viewership only among people who watch television on a live basis, with no DVR playback. "Last year at this time, DVR penetration in Nielsen's sample was about 9%. It is currently about 20%. Since roughly 35% of primetime viewing in DVR homes is time-shifted, as more DVR homes enter Nielsen's sample, the live program rating is automatically driven down," notes Sternberg. "So comparisons to last season will make it look as though audiences are declining at a greater rate than they actually are. This does not mean that fewer people are watching television - just that fewer people are watching it at the time it initially airs."
Live plus same day program ratings. This data, which adds all time-shifted viewing (and pausing/catching up) that occurs until 3 a.m. the following morning, is available in the so-called "overnight" ratings released by Nielsen each following day. "This has little relevance to us, but since the ratings are higher than live program ratings, the networks' publicity departments send this data to the press," Sternberg points out, adding, "It is also the default stream on Nielsen's press Web site, so many in the press do not even realize that Nielsen provides the Live data on their site (we've asked Nielsen to change this)."
Live plus seven-days program ratings. This data includes al time-shifted viewing to the program for a week. "This is an important metric because it provides some insights into how many people and what percentage of the audience are actually time-shifting," says Sternberg, adding that while the data is not used as TV ad marketplace "currency," it is used by agencies to "evaluate the overall viewing landscape. There is obviously some viewing that takes place after a week,"
C3 ratings. The current currency of the TV advertising marketplace, these ratings are not program audience estimates, but are the average minute within a program that contains national commercials, and include time-shifted viewing for three days (actually 75 hours) from the initial broadcast.
While no C3 ratings data has yet been released for the new broadcast season, Sternberg predicts they will likely be closer to the current live program ratings than the other ratings streams that have been made available to date. That would suggest that, on the basis of the market's official currency, the broadcast networks' audience delivery may in fact be down for the start of the new TV season.
However, Sternberg cautions, "After just two weeks, who's in first doesn't matter much, and unless there's a major decline, audience shifts are not that significant yet. Viewer sampling is still taking place, some shows premiere later than others, and viewing habits have not yet settled down.
"More significant, at this stage of the game, are differences between streams of data, and what this might mean for streams we haven't yet seen."
Weeks 1-2 Primetime Rating/Share Comparison (All Telecasts)
Live + SD
5 Broadcast Networks
7 Network Affiliates
Ad Supported Cable
All Other Cable