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SciFriday: Don’t Panic Over Ratings

Michael Hinman says remember, it’s still quite early in the season

When I first started covering ratings on Airlock Alpha, very few other outlets did it.

It’s not because no one cared about ratings — trust me, they cared — but it was because getting a handle of what ratings mean, and how they are used to determine the fate of a television show is not simplistic in any way.

I used to write an annual column breaking down what ratings were, explaining the rating itself, the share, how it’s used by networks and the like. These columns would be very popular, and even The Nielsen Co. itself would contact me and thank me for trying to help our readers understand the process (and not blame them when a show gets cancelled). But in recent years, I have seen an explosion of ratings interest and I’m amazed the number of people who e-mail me with very sophisticated conversations about how ratings work.

I think that’s excellent, because knowledge is power. Yet, now there is this whole cottage industry in ratings that have cropped up, and it’s creating a lot more panic than it probably should.

A few years back, Bill Gorman and Robert Seidman created a website dedicated to nothing except ratings, surprisingly calling it TV by the Numbers. They had access to detailed Nielsen numbers — many of which aren’t readily available to the media — and started to write and analyze it, playing a big role in making savvy readers like yourself interested in how the ratings process works.

Since they started, I’ve been both fascinated and frustrated by what the two have done. Fascinated, because I’m impressed how Gorman and Seidman can make numbers so interesting (in the past, I’ve always felt like an accountant who was trying to get his readers intrigued by a 400-page quarterly financial report). Frustrated, however, because I sometimes feel they miss a few key elements that play a significant role in whether a show lives or dies.

A popular feature of the site is an index they say helps predict whether a show will continue, or will be cancelled. It’s interesting, because it’s trying to add a scientific element to a process that is really not all that scientific. It compares a show’s key demo rating — typically adults 18 to 49 — against the rest of a particular network’s schedule, and then it uses that to try and share with readers shows that are in trouble, and those that are safe for now.

The system isn’t completely flawed. Obviously, low-rated shows are in trouble, so the low-hanging fruit will get picked off. But what about those that are bubble shows? What about those that might not be in trouble at all?

Earlier this week, Airlock Alpha picked up a TVBTN story that asked if NBC’s “Chuck” was in trouble. We added a bit of our own analysis to this, simply because I’ve been dealing with ratings for more than a decade now, and have a little bit of experience in trying to read ratings the same way network executives did.

Because “Chuck” was performing poorly compared to other NBC programs, TVBTN determined the show was in trouble. Not a “cancel it now” kind of trouble, but more a “very likely it won’t be back next season” kind of trouble.

And despite my opinion on the science of their determination, they could be right. Two years ago, “Chuck” almost didn’t come back at all, and when it did last season, it had originally been planned for late spring, only moving up because of the failure of “Heroes.” It ended up being one of NBC’s most solid shows on Mondays for the rest of the season.

However, after two episodes this season, it’s NBC’s lowest-rated show on Mondays. So far, “The Event” and “The Chase” are drawing more viewers — yet it’s too early to tell if those two programs can hold that audience, especially after some significant second-week dips while “Chuck” stayed stable.

One thing I have tried to do in sharing with you the potential fate of a show, is to look at how a show is performing the same way someone from a network would do it. That includes ratings, absolutely includes ratings. But it also includes a number of other factors.

First of all, networks don’t typically look at how one show is performing against the rest of the network’s own schedule. It does look at how it’s performing against shows from other networks, but it also looks at how the show is performing in the timeslot compared to the year before.

Over the past couple years, I started creating a vast personal ratings database that allows me to instantly pull up all kind of data and analysis, which you may have really started to see in ratings stories this year. I look at year-over-year. I look at how the show is doing against its competition. I even look at what a network might think could do better in the timeslot.

“Chuck” is pretty much on average to its last half-dozen shows last season — many of which aired before the renewal decision came down from NBC. While a new show might be on a chopping block, it’s hard to say that an established show with a very stable audience — “Chuck” has a very high Audience Loyalty Index rating of 95.7, meaning that of all the people who have tuned in this year to see “Chuck,” nearly 96 percent of them are returning week after week — is really in trouble. Especially after two episodes.

And ratings aren’t everything. We use Audience Loyalty Index, a scientific device of our own that is not consciously used by networks, but one that tries to quantify one of the things networks think about — show stability. At the beginning of the season, networks go out and sell advertising for shows based on potential audience. So let’s say that “Chuck” was sold as if it would earn a 3.5 rating, and it earns a 3.3 rating, the network has to “make that up” to the advertiser, usually giving them another time slot the network would’ve otherwise sold, and help them not only reach that 3.5, but end up going beyond, because the network most likely has no slots that earn just a 0.2 rating.

If a show stays stable, the network usually has sold it well, and doesn’t have to make schedule adjustments — something that can hurt a show’s overall life. They don’t sit down and look at it scientifically, but trust me, these execs know when they have had to do “make-goods” and when they have undersold shows on a regular basis. And having one strong night and a bunch of bad nights is not good for a show either … it means that technically, the network lost potential revenue.

Stability isn’t the only thing. A show could have the most stable audience on television and still get cancelled. But all of that depends on whether the network feels it has a replacement show that can do better numbers consistently. If they don’t, then a show that might seem odd to have on-air despite having low ratings continues to be on air.

There also are other factors. If the show is an in-house show — meaning the network itself produces the show — there is the potential revenue streams of iTunes, future DVD sales and the like. So a show could be low-rated, but might have tremendous DVD sales each year — like “30 Rock” on NBC for instance — and it makes good business sense to continue. Or, you could have a “Chuck” situation, where the show is produced by another production company, thus NBC wouldn’t see DVD and iTunes money. However, Warner Bros. — who produces the show — might see strong DVD sales, and could be willing to cut its per-episode licensing fee to NBC just to keep the show on the air, and thus produce more DVD sales.

“Glee” is an example of this. Before it became Fox’s highest-rated scripted program, it struggled out the gate. Fox, however, saw a lot of song sales from the show on iTunes — plus episode purchases — and the revenue from that was enough for the network to renew the show not just for one season, but for two — unheard of in network television.

So in the end, as admirable as it is for TVBTN to try and create a scientific structure in determining the fates of shows, it simply can’t be done. There are so many factors involved that cannot be tracked by any scientific means — even if we knew what all those factors were.

Yeah, shows need to get good ratings. But that means you should simply enjoy your favorite shows, and tell your friends to enjoy their favorite shows. Create buzz online for it, and if you can find a Nielsen family or two, tell them to be sure they’re tuned in. And if your show gets cancelled, yes, there is a sense of loss. But there are a lot of great shows out there right now, and something else will catch your interest.

It always does.

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