Webs run numbers game

Nets using 'new math' to calculate viewer stats

Numbers don’t lie — except in Hollywood.

In a town known for its creative math, it’s never much of a shock to hear that someone’s fudged the numbers just a little. But in recent weeks, network promotion execs have taken the art of spinning stats to a whole new level.

The most recent wave of “new math” started during last month’s Super Bowl. Hoping to create some heat for new drama “House,” Fox ran an ad trumpeting the claim that “40 millions have made ‘House’ a hit.”

To which most TV insiders watching responded, “Huh?”

At the time, “House” was averaging a modest 7 million viewers per week. Critics loved it, and it was growing substantially from its lead-in — but no single episode ever approached the 40 million number.

Turns out Fox had come up with 40 million by estimating how many people had watched the show on a cumulative basis since its November premiere. Even if someone only watched one episode for 10 minutes, it counted.

The floodgates soon opened:

  • CBS, irritated by Fox’s positioning, decided to start touting the fact that “more than 100 million viewers” have made “CSI” TV’s top-rated show.

  • A few days later, ABC Entertainment prexy Steve McPherson, flabbergasted by Fox’s funny numbers s, upped the ante further. He ordered ads hyping the 150 million-plus fans tuning in each week to watch “Desperate Housewives” and “Extreme Makeover: Home Edition.”

  • Cablers have joined the fray, too. Last week, E! ran a radio spot breathlessly urging folks to discover why “millions and millions of viewers” have made its “Dr. 90210” reality skein a success.

McPherson said his ad was designed to lighten up the ratings race. It only ran a few times, and he has no plans to start using so-called “cume” ratings on a regular basis.

“I’m not sure that America is that naive,” McPherson says, arguing such spots don’t really do much to convince viewers to tune in.

“They watch shows that they like based on their content,” he adds. “And those numbers don’t bear any semblance to how the shows are actually doing.”

Fox actually agrees with ABC’s take.

“Do I think any of these numbers entice people to watch? No,” says Fox scheduling guru Preston Beckman. “At the end of the day, the viewers are smarter than all of us.”

But Beckman also points out that Fox is hardly the first web to use cume numbers to tout its shows.

“It’s been done before; we just happened to do it during the Super Bowl,” he says. “We didn’t do anything groundbreaking.”

Some industry wags are already joking about just how out of hand the cume craze could get. NBC, for example, could probably run an ad saying more people than inhabit the planet have watched “ER” since the show’s debut.

“Maybe we could cume up the number for ‘America’s Funniest Home Videos,’ ” McPherson says of the net’s longest-running skein. “At last count, it’s up to 17 billion.”