The Spin War: TV Ratings Rituals Persist Despite Changes in Viewing Habits

They rise before dawn, ready for battle, and a race against the clock. A hardy group of broadcast network PR and research executives are waging a daily spin war during premiere season as overnight ratings are disseminated for new and returning fall shows.

The process has become more intense than ever, because journalists and armchair pundits now have the megaphone of social media to blast out the numbers and instantaneous judgments on a show’s performance. Those missives ricochet around the Internet in a matter of minutes, coloring the perception of a show, particularly among the hyper-connected TV fans that networks most want to reach.

Competitive fervor fuels the melee. As journalists jockey to be the first to report on ratings for high-profile shows, network execs scramble to get out their spin and statistics (i.e., “our best performance with non-sports programming on a Wednesday since 2009”) before reporters weigh in.

For journalists, the need for speed — being fast translates to Internet traffic, after all — has driven Variety and others to report at times on the most preliminary overnight ratings (subject to significant revision) that seep out from network sources around 6 or 6:30 a.m. PT.

In truth, the rush to report on overnights seems out of step at a time when TV watching is shifting dramatically to delayed-viewing platforms. Network execs have been preaching that “overnights are irrelevant” in a multiplatform world, yet research execs say requests from journalists for the earliest overnights have stepped up over the past few seasons.

“It’s a bit of morning madness that is really outdated,” says Chris Ender, exec VP of communications for CBS. “What we’re doing is counterintuitive to how we’re making decisions and how we’re communicating to the outside world about all the different ways people are watching television. The whole process has become somewhat silly.”

Ratings pros all agree the live-plus-three and live-plus-seven ratings encompassing some (but not all) delayed viewing provide a fuller picture of a show’s audience, but there’s no way to hold back the tide when those first live numbers roll in. It takes five to 14 days for Nielsen to process L3 and L7 ratings — an eternity in the 24/7 news cycle.

FX, HBO and NBCUniversal cable outlets have made the decision to wait until the L3 numbers are in to report ratings, although live-plus-same-day ratings for those channels can still be obtained from other sources. But broadcast TV’s culture of scrutinizing overnights first thing in the morning makes it harder for broadcast networks to change their ratings rituals.

“It’s just getting crazier every year. The intensity of the number of people who are looking at fast-affiliate numbers and talking about the numbers has grown,” says Jeff Lindsey, VP of ratings publicity for Disney/ABC TV Group. “If we had our choice, we wouldn’t be reporting live-plus-same-day ratings, especially for our scripted shows.”

What’s more, the increasing interest in social-media metrics has added a layer of complexity to evaluating performance. Nielsen’s Twitter TV ratings offer more numbers to crunch. Execs say social stats have become an important gauge of the potential of a show to attract new viewers. When a program sparks a significant amount of live-tweeting and post-telecast conversation, it’s a good sign that digital word of mouth will encourage others in the same social circles to check out the show, albeit in a nonlinear way.

For net execs on the West Coast, the chase begins around 5:30 a.m., and continues with a steady stream of data (demographic breakdowns, late-night and daytime numbers) coming in from Nielsen until about 1 p.m. During periods of heavy premiere activity, there’s a daily “dawn patrol” session via email around 6 a.m. among Ender, CBS’ senior exec VP Kelly Kahl and marketing president George Schweitzer. From home, at the gym or while walking the dog, the trio bat around observations and ideas for positioning the numbers. Other networks go through a similar ritual.

By 8 a.m., when the “fast-nationals” come in from Nielsen, the starting pistol goes off. The research and PR teams have no more than 15 or 20 minutes to get their talking points to key reporters before tweets and stories start to fly. There’s plenty of spinning against the competition as well — other networks are quick to note when a rival’s show hits a record-low rating — although execs note that as live ratings have shrunk, the level of aggression has eased. The margin between the No. 1 and No. 3 show in a time slot is often mere tenths of a rating point — which means that network bragging rights can change on a dime.

The split-second decision making of today is light years removed from the days when faxes were the cutting edge of ratings distribution. And for years, each of the Big Four nets maintained telephone hotlines where execs and talent and journos could listen to a recorded message featuring a research staffer reading off the primetime overnight ratings, time slot by time slot.

The demand for any scrap of TV news has created a cottage industry of online players in the ratings game, from Twitter personalities such as @tvgrimreaper (formerly known as @thecancelbear) who predict the fate of shows, to sites such as TV by the Numbers. One longtime PR exec notes that consumer interest in ratings seems driven as much by “super-haters” of shows as it is by super-fans.

Net execs worry more than they used to about the cascading effect of bad ratings news, because of its potential to dissuade viewers from checking out a show if they think it won’t last long.

“The daily ratings discussions used to be about analysis, trends and insights,” Ender says. “Now they’re strictly information management.”

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