CBS research czar: all viewers count

Poltrack urges patience in determining TV's new hits

The new television season is upon us, and with it a whole lot of measuring by the press, pundits and the advertising business.

To prep for the fall season, Variety asked top research execs to comment on the changing landscape of TV viewing.

But with added competition and new technologies, the job of parsing the numbers has become far more challenging. To help you keep score during the upcoming season, let me help clear up two areas of possible confusion for you.

• Despite what you may hear, all viewers count.

When reporting on the popularity of television programs, the correct measure is total viewers. In this era of DVR-time-shifted viewing, the Live Plus 3 metric (encompassing viewing of a program done on DVR within three days of the premiere telecast) isn’t a bad one, but it’s the final count of Live Plus 7 playback that shows the full viewing picture.

When reporting on the advertising value of a program, age and sex demographics are not valid indicators. While many television buyer/seller transactions are still based on the adults 18-49 or adults 25-54 demographics for market efficiency purposes, advertisers today use more diverse and precise targeting profiles to select the programs for their campaigns. These include more relevant demographics such as income and household size, engagement metrics and the actual product usage of each program’s viewers.

• A “hit” is a hit, except when it isn’t.

When the season begins, reporters will rush to declare the winners and the losers. They will be quick to declare this season’s “hits.” But what defines a “hit” program? There is a growing tendency to classify programs as “hits” without any concrete definition of what constitutes a “hit” program.

Let me clear things up. A “hit” program is one that attracts a lot of viewers; the more viewers, the bigger the hit. If you want to find out what are this season’s hits, look at the weekly rankings for total viewers.

While awards and critical acclaim are a welcome validation to a program of exceptional quality, they do not necessarily qualify that program as a “hit.”

Another common practice is to declare the hits and misses too early. The performance of the premiere telecasts of new programs is as much the product of the effectiveness of the promotional campaigns as of the programs themselves. Premieres can also be affected by the extraordinary competition during premiere week.

Patience breeds intelligence when crowning winners and losers. If I had my way, there would be an embargo on the ratings of all new programs until the third episode airs. Only then do we know if the program is building upon, just holding or losing its initial audience. It is also at this time that we will receive the full DVR playback count for the premiere.

With that said, let the new 2010-11 television season begin, and may the best network — in total viewers, of course — win.

(David Poltrack is chief research officer of CBS Corp. and prexy of its CBS Vision research unit.)

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