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Networks Tout Delayed Viewing Amid Dismal Early-Season Numbers

The 2019-20 broadcast premiere season has begun, and the ratings are … underwhelming.

More specifically, the Nielsen live-plus-same day ratings are underwhelming. Of the 13 new shows that debuted across the Big 4 during premiere week (Sept. 23-29), the highest-rated was Fox’s “Prodigal Son,” which notched a 0.96 rating in adults 18-49. In terms of total viewers, the most-watched were CBS’ “The Unicorn” and “All Rise,” which both registered just over 6 million viewers.

Delayed viewing numbers, however, present a very different story. In live-plus-seven, “Prodigal Son” rose by approximately 80% in both key ratings measures, growing to a 1.8 rating and 7.3 million viewers. “All Rise” did just that by approximately 40% in both measures to a 1.0 rating and 8.5 million viewers.

Such increases are why networks are focusing more than ever on delayed viewing rather than night-of ratings.

“We use the analogy of a football game,” says Elizabeth Sloan, senior VP of consumer insights for the Disney-ABC TV Group. “If an announcer calls the football game halfway through and says, ‘So and so is going to win or lose,’ [at least] it doesn’t affect the outcome of the game. But we feel that if you’re calling our show on live-plus-same day, that can impact how popular people think it is.”

One issue facing broadcasters in getting that message out is the time frame over which people will watch a show. Few people will tend to care about how a season or series premiere performed more than seven days after the fact, yet substantial lifts in that time are becoming more and more common.

“If you look at shows like ‘9-1-1,’ ‘This Is Us’ or ‘Grey’s Anatomy,’ 80% to 90% lift in live-plus-seven is now normal,” says Will Somers, head of research for Fox Entertainment. “So you’re flirting with doubling that rating with even some of the top shows on television.” Somers adds that even unscripted shows like “The Masked Singer,” which tend to be viewed with more urgency by fans, will see lifts to the tune of 50% in live-plus-seven.

That type of rise has been happening more frequently, says Sloan, who notes that going back just three years, only two ABC shows would grow by double digits in live-plus-seven. Last season, that number more than tripled, to seven.

Yet even live-plus-seven doesn’t offer a complete picture of a show’s audience. Jeff Bader, president of program planning, strategy and research for NBC Entertainment, says comedies are often binged once a season has ended, and points to “Brooklyn Nine-Nine” and “Superstore” as prime examples of this. According to Bader, the Season 6 premiere of “Brooklyn” drew just a 0.5 rating in live-plus-same day but is now up to “almost a 4 rating” across platforms through the end of the season. Similarly, the Season 4 finale of “Superstore” scored a 0.6 rating in live-plus-same day, but that number has grown to around a 3 since it aired in May.

Somers notes a similar phenomenon with Fox’s “Bob’s Burgers.” In live-plus-seven, the series averaged approximately 3.2 million viewers last season. But when you factor in multiplatform data from Hulu, Fox Now and OnDemand, “the average audience over the full scale of its availability window is 11.4 million viewers on average.”

Long-tail viewing has long been monetized less efficiently than linear viewing. Networks typically sell against C7 numbers, which measure seven days of viewing with ads. But as more viewing spreads out across time and platforms, focusing on the long term has become more important.

“What networks ultimately care about is maximizing their revenue from the available demand that’s out there,” says analyst Brian Wieser of GroupM. “The interesting ways in which television is consumed lead to increasing ways for network owners and sellers of advertising to generate revenue, primarily through tapping into new sources of demand.”

Delayed viewing numbers are still a relatively new thing in the TV ratings universe, with DVR technology factoring into the Nielsen numbers for roughly just the past 15 years. But with the advent of streaming and digital viewing, measuring those delayed returns has become more important. “You can go back as far as seven or eight years and see the throughline if you look at all the metrics,” says Scott Grogin, executive VP of communications for CBS Television Distribution. “It’s become more significant, certainly, in, say, the last three to four years.”

But Bader is hesitant to offer predictions.

“It’s a very different world, and you can’t look back a year or two years and make any comparisons, because there is a continual shift in percentage of viewing that is delayed,” he says. “It used to be we’d try and guess and say, ‘This looks like it’ll be a young male show, so it will have more of a digital presence.’ Those assumptions really don’t work anymore.”

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