NBC seizes on Nielsen rule change

New rule sets off furor among networks

With the fall season just two days old, the networks are already fighting over ratings.

Rival webs are accusing NBC of pulling a fast one by taking advantage of a new Nielsen rule that lets nets combine the ratings for multiple runs of a show — and then report them as one supersized number.

Peacock decided to do just that with Monday’s episode of “Heroes.” Seg will be repeated Saturday night, and the numbers for both broadcasts will be counted as one when Nielsen releases final numbers Oct. 2.

What’s more, the Saturday repeat won’t be counted in NBC’s weekly averages. Given how poorly most of the nets perform on Saturdays these days, the rule change means the Peacock gets to eliminate what will likely be one of its least-watched hours — while simultaneously inflating the average audience for “Heroes.”

Peacock’s actions are all legit, per Nielsen. But that doesn’t make them completely kosher, rivals argue.

“Theoretically, (NBC is) doing nothing wrong,” said ABC research chief Larry Hyams. “But morally, they’re playing with the weekly averages. … You could see where this could lead to abuse.”

NBC research guru Alan Wurtzel said the net has no plans to repeat the “Heroes” multiplay strategy in the near future, calling it a one-time-only situation with this particular broadcast.

Net chose to report the numbers this way because it had a deal with Nissan to serve as the sole sponsor of the season premiere of “Heroes,” making it easy to test the new rule. (Nielsen requires nets to air the exact same commercial load in each broadcast in order to qualify for the cume rating.)

Nonetheless, Wurtzel said it’s only a matter of time before cume ratings become the norm.

“The notion that there is a one-time play and one-time exposure (for a show) is simply obsolete,” he said. “In a couple of years (overnight ratings for single broadcasts) are going to be so retro, it’s going to be like household ratings. Nobody will pay attention to them anymore.”

But NBC’s decision to test out the new rule so suddenly, without any warning, is likely to tick off rivals even more.

“The fact that it took place during premiere week and at the last second indicates it’s more about gamesmanship for premiere week rather than making a definitive change in the way they’re selling the medium,” one rival exec said.

Rule change also caught ad agencies by surprise just as they were preparing to analyze Monday night’s premiering shows.

“They didn’t ask us,” said Shari Anne Brill, director of programming for Carat Americas. “They are doing this at the behest of the networks — this is not something the agencies want.”

With the change, agencies will have to wait until October to get the cumulative number from both airings, and they may never get detailed numbers from the 9 p.m. hour unless NBC decides to release them.

Agency sources said the change will make it difficult to compare the preems of Fox’s “K-Ville” or CBS’ “Two and a Half Men” with that of the NBC show.

“I think it’s outrageous,” said Magna Global senior veep of audience analysis Steve Sternberg. “If they want to sell the commercial inventory on a Monday episode and a Saturday repeat, that’s fine. I still want to see the Monday ratings and the Saturday ratings.”

Wurtzel said NBC wasn’t trying to be sneaky.

“This is a rule Nielsen put into play this summer. This should surprise no one,” he said. “Anyone who keeps up with the Nielsen client information notices would know about this. Every single agency knew about this, or should have known about it.”

But CBS Corp. chief research officer David Poltrack said the NBC move did seem a bit sudden.

“We knew it was an option, so in a sense it didn’t take us by surprise,” he said. “The only thing that did take us by surprise is that they did it at the last second.”

While NBC says it’s not planning to make a habit of using Nielsen’s new rule, some worry about a future where nets do just that. Rivals are already annoyed that NBC doesn’t air commercials during the first half-hour of its Sunday NFL coverage (a pre-game show) — thus eliminating one of its lowest-rated half-hours.

“You can’t look at a show’s ratings the way we used to,” Hyams said, noting that year-to-year comparisons suddenly become impossible.

What’s more, shows that might have been in the top 25 could end up in the top 10 if a net airs them enough times. NBC could even air a show like “Heroes” on Sci Fi Channel and — as long as it aired the same ads in the same pattern — Nielsen would count the run in the show’s cume average.

“The scorecard in the press can now be manipulated more easily than in the past,” Hyams said.

Indeed, to poke fun at NBC’s move, CBS issued a press release Tuesday calling its own “Rules of Engagement” the No. 1 reported program in its time period — since Nielsen will never officially release the “Heroes” Monday-only average, though the number was widely distributed Tuesday by other nets as part of routine Nielsen-based press release info.

And Hyams noted that the Nielsen rule has some other inherent flaws. ABC, for example, can’t repeat its hit Sunday shows, since Nielsen requires shows to repeat in the same week in order to qualify for the cume number, and Sunday is the end of the Nielsen week.

“There are inequities to this,” Hyams said.

For its part, Nielsen cast the move as an attempt to normalize primetime ratings with syndication, which is reported on a cumulative basis, and cable, which increasingly uses cume numbers for multiple airings of the same show.

Nielsen also said the move would allow stations with a digital multicast channel to report cume audiences — an essential step in the digital age.

“We know things are changing rapidly in the way people watch television and the way our clients are selling advertising,” said Nielsen spokeswoman Anne Elliot.

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