Harder And Harder To Measure TV Viewing

With DVRs, video on demand, game consoles and streaming services, tablets and smartphones, the way people watch television is changing and the industry is struggling to keep on top of it all. Even the idea of "watching television" is in flux. Are you "watching TV" when you stream an episode of Downton Abbey on a tablet?
Associated Press,

NEW YORK (AP) — Every Tuesday, the Nielsen company publishes a popularity ranking of broadcast television programs that has served as the industry's report card dating back to when most people had only three networks to choose from.

And every week, that list gets less and less meaningful.

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With DVRs, video on demand, game consoles and streaming services, tablets and smartphones, the way people watch television is changing and the industry is struggling to keep on top of it all. Even the idea of "watching television" is in flux. Are you "watching TV" when you stream an episode of "Downton Abbey" on a tablet?

Nielsen, which has long had a virtual monopoly on the audience statistics that drive a multi-billion dollar industry, last week took an important step toward accounting for some of the changes. Starting in September, Nielsen will begin measuring viewership through broadband devices like game consoles for the first time. Right now those numbers go uncounted.

"The ratings are a very one-dimensional look at what is happening," said Alan Wurtzel, top research executive at NBC Universal, "and we now live in a very multi-dimensional world."

Nielsen's weekly rankings count people who watch a broadcast TV show live or on their DVRs that same day through midnight on the West Coast. To be sure, this is still how most people watch television. CBS didn't need anything other than live numbers to know that its new reality show "The Job" was a flop, and canceled it a week ago after two episodes.

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Through separate, less publicized rankings, Nielsen can also track how many people see a program on a time-shifted basis. One ranking, which measures live viewership plus those who watch on DVR or video on demand within three days of the original airing, is what the industry uses to set advertising rates. Other rankings measure those who watch within a week, or even within a month.

Those numbers can present a much different picture of a program's popularity.

During the last week of January, for example, ABC's "Modern Family" ranked No. 12 for the week with 10.8 million viewers if you count just the people who watched on Wednesday, Jan. 23. But within seven days, 15.9 million people had seen the episode, enough to make it the third most popular show of the week behind two "American Idol" episodes. Fox's "The Following" finished a modest 15th place initially, but its audience jumped by 45 percent over the next week, enough to lift the show to fourth place.

Meanwhile, almost all of the "60 Minutes" viewing is done live. The CBS newsmagazine dropped from seventh place in the initial rankings to 15th after a week.

The time-shifted viewing can change a network's perception of a show. NBC would have likely canceled "The Office" years ago without this additional audience. "The idea of how many people are watching a program and caring about the show becomes increasingly important, and it is not reflected in the Tuesday report," Wurtzel said.

CBS considers its freshman drama "Elementary" a case of public perception not matching reality. Last fall, the show averaged 9.7 million viewers - respectable, but hardly a sensation. But between video on demand, DVRs and streaming, CBS said an average of 13 million people watched each episode within a month of its airing.

"If the number the press had seen was 13 million instead of 9.7 million, it would have been seen as a huge hit," said David Poltrack, CBS chief researcher.

In a world where people demand information faster and faster, television executives are no different. They want ratings NOW. The problem is, all of the changes in content consumption demand patience. Nielsen's report on how many people watch a show within seven days isn't released until three weeks after a show first airs — a glacial pace.

"We have to basically train the entire industry to no longer look at the fastest information, which is preliminary and not necessarily reflective of what the reality is," Poltrack said.

Nielsen says it regularly discusses how it releases ratings with all of its clients and there's been no consensus on change. Most people watch their favorite shows as quickly as they can, said Pat McDonough, Nielsen senior vice president of insights and analysis.

Each week the average American spends 32 hours and 15 minutes watching live television, according to a Nielsen study issued last month. More than 12 hours is spent either watching time-shifted TV or DVDs, playing on game consoles, surfing the Internet or watching video on computer or mobile devices, the study said.

"The one thing most people don't think about is a lot of the additional viewing is rolling out slowly over time and right now, live plus same day viewing is the best way to measure," she said. "It may not be that way five years from now."

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Ratings

Overnights, adults 18-49 for September 25, 2016
  • 1.
    5.5/18
  • 2.
    2.6/8
  • 3.
    1.2/4
  • 4.
    0.9/3
  • 5.
    0.5/2
  • 6.
    0.2/1
Source: Nielsen

Reviews

  • Rob Owen

    Easily fall’s best broadcast network comedy pilot, NBC’s The Good Place offers a clever high-concept premise that’s complemented with intelligent, sometimes absurdist humor. Created by Michael Schur, co-creator of NBC’s Parks and Recreation, The Good Place is a highly serialized series that’s essentially set in heaven and stars Kristen Bell and Ted Danson. NBC made five episodes of The Good Place available for review, and the show not only holds up, but also it improves, deepening characters that initially feel one-note and frequently leaving viewers guessing with cliffhanger endings to many of the episodes. The combination of snappy dialogue and winning but flawed characters makes The Good Place a great bet for fans of smart TV comedy.

  • Maureen Ryan

    Pitch has swagger, for good reason. It gets the big things right; the Fox drama about the first female baseball player in the Major Leagues is one of the year’s most assured and exciting debuts. But part of what impresses about the pilot is also the way it confidently strings together so many small but telling details. Ginny (Kylie Bunbury) is the first woman to be called up from the minors to the big leagues, and no show since Friday Night Lights has done a better job of portraying the internal and external pressures that weigh heavily on young athletes asked to do much more than merely succeed on the field. Pitch will likely do a good job of getting viewers to root for it. The hope is that the show won’t be an impressive, short-lived curiosity, but rather a long-term phenomenon.

  • Kevin Fallon

    In a fall TV season that’s already making a splash for championing diverse, distinctive voices in an array of projects that they created, wrote, and starred in, Better Things on FX stands out. The show is created by, written by, and starsPamela Adlon. She plays Sam Fox, the single mother of three daughters modeled after her own reality-show-ready experience raising three girls in Los Angeles following a divorce. Sam is also, like Adlon, a working actress — on shows both raunchy, a la Californication, and animated for children, like her role on Recess. It’s a refreshingly blunt take on single motherhood without sacrificing the warmth of parental love, portraying the dance between selfishness and selflessness that’s at the heart of being a parent — especially one weathering the hormonal fireworks of a household of four women at different ages.

  • David Wiegand

    The fall TV season doesn’t count as much as it used to — we already know that. But no matter how many retreads the broadcast networks throw at viewers in the next few months, this fall will be memorable because of the premiere of Atlanta on Tuesday, Sept. 6, on FX. The half-hour comedy created by and starring Donald Glover (Community), simply and brilliantly recalibrates our expectations of what a TV comedy is and how black lives are portrayed on the medium.

  • Louisa Ada Seltzer

    The second reboot of the 1980s John Candy movie Uncle Buck, bumped by ABC from midseason, has the same tired jokes you'll find on any second-rate sitcom. Too bad, because Mike Epps is appealing and ABC would be wise to keep him around for future shows, but there’s just not enough to this show to suggest it will last past summer. It also airs against NBC’s America’s Got Talent, summer’s No. 1 program on broadcast, which may make it even harder to find an audience.

  • Neil Genzlinger

    Bryan Cranston brings his Tony Award-winning interpretation of President Lyndon B. Johnson to television in an adaptation of the Robert Schenkkan play All the Way, and it’s still quite a sight to behold, just as it was on Broadway in 2014. Nothing beats witnessing this kind of larger-than-life portrayal onstage, of course. But the television version, presented by HBO, offers plenty of rewards, allowing Cranston to work the close-ups and liberating him from the confines of a theater set. Cranston’s performance is a gem — in his hands, this accidental president comes across as an amazing bundle of contradictions, someone who seems at once too vulgar for the job and just right for it.

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