Since digital switchover, coverage is down

ABC has a 1% problem.

Alphabet execs are trying to figure out why, according to Nielsen, their network can now be found in just 97% of U.S. TV households — below CBS, NBC and even Fox.

All four major networks lost a bit of their nationwide coverage following the digital TV transition. Before the summer switchover, the nets’ programs regularly cleared 99% of the country — which pretty much reps everyone but a few really rural pockets of the country.

After the switchover, with a few TV owners opting not to convert to digital, that number dropped for everyone — but while CBS, NBC and Fox eventually recovered to 98% coverage, ABC still hasn’t. And no one seems to know why.

“It’s bizarre,” said ABC research chief Charles Kennedy. “Normally people don’t get too excited about a 1% change… (and) we’re not crying over spilled milk here, but there’s a little more milk we could be lapping up. That’s an extra 1% that is not being monetized by us.”

Kennedy said he believed that 1% difference in coverage could mean an extra $15 million to $20 million in advertising revenue.

Adding to the complication is the strange circumstance in which Fox — which has long relied on a slightly weaker band of affiliates — has now surpassed ABC in coverage scope.

The coverage drop has nothing to do with losing affiliates; ABC still has the same 233 affiliates it had before the digital switchover.

Nielsen spokesman Gary Holmes said the ratings behemoth was “working with ABC to confirm their coverage area.”

“To derive coverage areas we use a combination of affiliate lineups supplied by ABC, along with the receivability of the network within our sample,” he said.

That’s where the fluctuation might be occuring. Several local TV stations — including a handful of prominent ABC-owned outlets — were hit with complaints in June after switching to weaker digital signals.

ABC said it has corrected most of those problems with its stations. But given Nielsen’s small sample size, if one or two homes reporting to Nielsen are still having problems tuning in their ABC station, it might be enough to throw off the network’s coverage total.

Alphabet execs have also expressed frustration over screwy ratings fluctuations for some of its shows. “Cougar Town” and “FlashForward” were hit harder than NBC and CBS shows during the World Series — and especially among women 35-49, a demo not traditionally known for watching baseball. Nielsen is looking into that anomaly as well.

This reps the latest in an ongoing flurry of complaints the networks have leveled against Nielsen’s tallies and processes. In 2003, broadcasters including ABC balked when the ratings service showed a sudden, massive viewership drop among men 18-34. (After those complaints, the young male viewership mysteriously returned to more normal levels).

In May, Fox Networks Group honcho Tony Vinciquerra vented over Nielsen’s admissions that its TV ratings may be off my as much as 8%. Late this summer the major media congloms and advertisers created a consortium to push Nielsen for a more accurate and comprehensive ratings system.

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