TV shows taking time to grow

'True Blood' example of ratings patience

The headlines after the initial Sept. 7 airing of HBO’s vampire skein “True Blood” reflected the debut’s apparently flat ratings: “Modest bite.” “Rocky start.”

While “True Blood” bowed to just 1.4 million total viewers for its initial run, the overall audience tally had grown to 5.4 million once several weeks’ data measuring other viewing options had trickled in. HBO renewed the show for a second season.

As audiences increasingly watch original series through encore runs, DVRs and video-on-demand, the lesson is to not judge a show by its overnight numbers. Wait at least a week or two.

It’s a logic proliferating among cable networks on the basic and premium side of the spectrum. Perceptions, they say, aren’t in sync with reality.

“Don’t look at a premiere number on a premium channel and think that it means much to our business,” says David Baldwin, exec VP of program planning for HBO.

“Everybody wants to report the score of the ballgame, but the problem is that this particular ballgame isn’t over for a few months,” explains Baldwin, noting that viewing of an HBO series can take place on HBO on Demand weeks or months after the show first aired.

For networks, the need to communicate a clear, accurate message about their series’ ratings extends well beyond mere vanity. Just as the public has become more aware of box office performance in recent years, audience perception of a show’s Nielsen numbers now determines to a significant extent whether viewers will even sample it. Why buy into a series that will likely end soon?

Cries of “give it time” have long been a gripe among TV execs, but in the case of “True Blood” and other shows they may have some merit.

While two months seems like a long time to wait, holding off until at least Sept. 23 would have provided the press a truer assessment of “True Blood’s” premiere perf, Baldwin says.

“At that point we had the (encore) plays, we had the live-plus-seven (DVR) numbers from Nielsen and we had two weeks of (HBO on Demand) numbers,” Baldwin explains. “In recent context, 5.4 million is in line with an individual chapter of ‘John Adams’ this year, or the most successful ‘Entourage’ season ever when it followed ‘The Sopranos.’ It is in the league of larger-stature HBO programming.”

Accounting for its total audience distribution, HBO researchers say “True Blood” receives only 23% of its viewership upon initial run, with 56% coming via encore presentations, 8% through DVR usage and 13% through HBO on Demand.

One thing is certain: Opening wide on cable TV isn’t that important to some anymore, with viewers now equipped with a growing number of tools that let them determine their own schedule.

FX topper John Landgraf believes the standard cable industry operating procedure of publicizing overnight numbers featuring total viewer counts for a series’ initial run should give way to reporting the metrics that advertisers care about. For starters, that means combining the viewership of the various encore presentations.

“What we actually sell to advertisers is a multirun cume,” Landgraf says. “In my view, I could care less if somebody watches “The Shield” at 10 p.m. on Tuesday or an encore several days later, because what I’m selling is the cumulative rating of its runs. … If you’re a cable show and you’re on four times a week, that’s your weekly viewership.”

With DVRs in nearly 30% of homes and advertisers now accounting for their usage, Landgraf says reported ratings should include seven days of DVR playback data after the initial airing of an episode. “Shows look really different once the plus-seven data comes in,” he explains. “It can really make a dramatic difference in terms of the rating.”

Research execs for competitors, including cable ratings leaders USA Network and Turner Networks, agree that waiting at least a week after an episode’s initial run-date delivers a more accurate assessment of ratings performance. However, they feel much less strongly regarding the irrelevance of overnight numbers.

Overnights are “still a healthy enough benchmark to get a good read on how a show will do, even though you could be missing up to 40% of your audience based on what the show does seven days later,” says Ted Linhart, VP of USA program research.

Jack Wakshlag, chief research officer for Turner Broadcasting, says that so-called “live plus seven” ratings — measurement for the seven days after a show initial is shown — are “the best benchmark for assessing overall performance, but what choice do you have? The show premieres on a Monday and people want to know how it did. You get a less-than-complete picture looking at it the next day, but you don’t get a totally incomplete picture.”

Indeed, overnight data may not capture the breadth and depth of “True Blood’s” total audience, but it draws a pretty good picture of how the show is trending. After debuting to 1.4 million viewers, the Alan Ball-created series saw its overnight audience tally spike to 1.8 million for the subsequent initial runs of episodes two and three.

Conversely, TNT’s new legal drama “Raising the Bar” enjoyed a big premiere Sept. 1, drawing 7.7 million viewers, but has seen its overnight numbers decline steadily since then, totalling just 2.5 million Sept. 22. These are clear ratings drops that wouldn’t be offset by accounting for DVR viewing in subsequent days.

Further, as Wakshlag notes, more than half of the DVR bump a show might receive after its initial airing can come in that first day, meaning this viewership will be accounted for in the overnight rating anyway. “Most shows get a big chunk of their DVR boost on the same day they run,” he says.