Networks learn to be patient

DVRs, downloads changing ratings landscape

In an age of instant statistical gratification, network execs are discovering that patience is now much more than a virtue — it’s a fact of life.

While box office prognosticators these days can hazard a reliable guess as to a pic’s perf after just one or two East Coast showings, TV’s rapidly evolving distribution landscape is increasingly turning the ratings race into something of a guessing (and waiting) game.

New viewing options such as DVRs, streaming videos and instant downloads that allow auds to watch shows on their own timetable are making it harder than ever to figure out just how many people are tuning in to a show — particularly new series. And it has become easier than ever for nets to spin Nielsen numbers and hide behind more marginally performing shows.

The new uncertainty has hit hard during the first few weeks of the 2007-08 season. Producers and webheads are praying that big declines in viewership for some returning shows — and generally lackluster numbers for newcomers — will magically improve once Nielsen issues final data encompassing DVR usage later this month.

“We’re going to see a tremendous boost when the (DVR) numbers come back,” says ABC research senior VP Mike Mellon — who expects “Grey’s Anatomy” to grow by a full ratings point, for starters.

“That’s a huge difference,” he says.

As a result, CBS Corp. chief research officer David Poltrack says “it’s going to be very uncomfortable” until those numbers come out.

“We’re not used to lags in getting information.”

None of this is to suggest that the next-day numbers are meaningless. Virtually all shows attract 80% or more of their audience from live or same-day viewing, and it’s still easy to tell a big hit or flop based on overnight numbers.

Yet there’s enough viewing independent of the traditional broadcast premiere to make it worth to wait for final numbers.

NBC research topper Alan Wurtzel says the days of instant Nielsen nirvana are over.

“This is a whole new world, and anyone who doesn’t understand that is behind the times,” he says. “I recognize that everyone wants to understand what their performance is quickly, but the days of having a single number that reflects a show’s performance are over.”

Biggest factor in the new Nielsen paradigm is digital video recorders, which have become increasingly common in TV homes — and are thus having a greater impact on viewership. Last season, about 9% of the Nielsen sample included DVR homes; this season, the number has doubled to roughly 20%.

Problem is, it takes Nielsen two weeks to add in DVR data to the ratings equation. In the meantime, it’s tricky to compare this year’s numbers to last year’s.

Most media outlets (and even some MadAve ratings gurus) can’t wait to pass judgment on a show’s Nielsen status, resulting in ratings analyses that are based on misleading data.

“It’s silly that everyone is obsessed with the immediate,” says ABC Entertainment prexy Steve McPherson.

Take the Alphabet’s “Lost.” Using same-day ratings, many newspapers and magazines reported huge ratings declines for the show last spring.

But once DVR numbers were factored in, it turned out the show’s ratings were actually 20% higher than first thought. “Lost” was down, but it wasn’t out.

For “24” exec producer Howard Gordon, the march toward broader, more inclusive ratings is a vindication of sorts.

The heavily serialized “24” is one of the more popular shows recorded by DVR users, along with ABC’s “Lost.” But last season, when “24” hit ratings declines, Gordon says that fact was rarely mentioned in stories about the show’s drops.

“We were perceived to have fallen off more than we did,” Gordon says. “Our show was one of the more TiVo’ed shows, and as a result our ratings appeared to fall off more than it did. It creates a public perception that’s inaccurate.”

While media outlets are still rendering quick verdicts, network insiders say — unless a show is a flat-out failure, like Fox’s on-hiatus “Nashville” — they’re going to hold off making any decisions on cancellations until after seeing DVR data.

“The perception of what a hit is and a miss is and something in between isn’t clear,” Gordon says. “When a show is called a hit by the press, it’s almost like Barry Bonds — with an asterisk. I don’t know what to make of the numbers and I’m in the business.”

For now, the industry is waiting for Oct. 16, when a hodgepodge of stats come out. Nets will be hyping live-plus-seven (which counts a week of DVR playback), while Madison Avenue has said it’ll be focusing on live-plus-three and commercial-plus-three (a new Nielsen yardstick that measures how many viewers watched commercials up to three days after a show first airs).

Expect a flurry of press releases as nets attempt to put a positive shine on shows that might have appeared to stumble out of the gate at the start of the season. But while the PR types will be pushing the new data, it’s worth noting that so far, advertisers still base most of their buying decisions on same-day ratings, with some deals cut off at live-plus-three.

That’s one reason Fox scheduling guru Preston Beckman believes too much is being made of DVRs’ impact on ratings, and that networks who emphasize such data are just spinning.

“What we saw last week is what we saw last week,” he says. “Nothing is going to change that will radically shift a network’s perceptions of a show.”

Indeed, many shows won’t see much, if any, impact from the DVR numbers. Biggest beneficiaries: Younger-skewing skeins popular among higher-income auds.

Time periods are also determining DVR impact. Usage is particularly high at 10 p.m., as viewers watch the shows they recorded earlier in the evening. Those 10 p.m. shows are then viewed the next day.

Then there’s Thursday, where six of the top 10 played-back shows all reside.

“That means if you come in Friday morning and look at the numbers, they’re not telling the true story until you look at live-plus-seven,” Mellon says.

Whatever their influence, at least DVR numbers eventually get added to a show’s finally Nielsen tally — and as of this year, advertisers are finally starting to pay for that viewership.

A host of other net platforms — Internet streaming, iTunes and other download-on-demand services, mobile phone broadcasts — are bringing in new eyeballs, but the nets aren’t as inclined to release such proprietary information on a regular basis, whereas the nightly Nielsen numbers are widely dispersed throughout the industry and to media minutes after they’re issued every morning.

Nets individually may have a rough idea of how well a show is doing on iTunes or how often it’s streamed via the Web. But there’s still no easy-to-understand metric that lets a network add up all of those platforms and figure out just how popular a series really is.

That needs to change, says producer Josh Schwartz, who’s behind frosh skeins “Chuck” and “Gossip Girl.” His newcomers are doing fine on TV, but are red-hot on iTunes. “I don’t know how you don’t take into account streaming, downloads, etc.,” he says.  “Your show is still being viewed.  If you buy a record on iTunes or Best Buy it still counts as a sale.  I think certain types of audiences are more likely to be watching TV shows in unconventional ways and those shows may still have a passionate, loyal audience – just not one that watches TV live every week.”

Wurtzel and NBC are experimenting with new ways to rate shows in the multiplatform universe. They’re developing something called Total Audience Measurement Interactive (TAMi) in a bid to better quantify a show’s overall audience.

“Everyone’s still focused on the network numbers,” he says. “But while you can still tell a lot from the national ratings or the overnights, it’s not a complete picture.”

Even Beckman agrees that ratings are being impacted by the slew of new platforms now available to consumers.

“We’ve hit the point where we’ve made the beginning of the season into a non-event,” he says. “We’ve convinced the audience that there’s nothing special about watching a show on air. When you know you can watch it in multiple ways, you don’t feel compelled to watch it right away.”

As dramatic as that sounds, many insiders believe it’s not all doom-and-gloom for the nets.

While people might not be watching as much live TV, they’re still getting sucked in by the medium. Nielsen last year issued a report that said Americans are watching a record amount of TV each week — a sign that consumers haven’t given up on the small screen.

As an exec producer, Gordon says he’s watching the shifting landscape with interest.

“The ground is shifting under everyone’s feet, but none of us is sure what to make of it,” Gordon says. “But it doesn’t change the way I approach my job on a day to day basis.”

What’s more, DVR penetration has not yet reached critical mass. As Nielsen continues to add more DVR homes throughout the season as usage rises, Mellon suggests it won’t even be fair to compare September numbers to November numbers.

“I’ve heard DVR penetration will grow as high as 40 percent when all is said and done,” he says. “Each month will get higher. It will probably be in the mid-20 percent range by the end of the season.”

Webheads say things will seem a lot better for the primetime once they figure out how to count — and monetize — all their new viewing sources.

Until then, “We’re all in this crazy transition period,” one veteran exec says. “We’re jumping into a black hole fairly unprepared for what’s going to happen.”