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Here's another article about recent changes to Nielsen:


CHANNEL ISLAND: The DVR could save your show

Nielsen adds 'time-shifted' viewings to TV ratings, which could benefit scripted shows and lower audience ages.
By Scott Collins, Los Angeles Times Staff Writer
October 1, 2007
ONE week into the fall TV season, and we already have some notions about which prime-time series are likely to stick around for a while. "Bionic Woman" and "Private Practice" look like hits. "Gossip Girl" and "K-Ville"? Not so much.

Don't cry yet, though -- your favorite underperforming new show may not necessarily be headed for the same fate as Josie Maran on "Dancing With the Stars." At the very least, it will probably take the networks a little longer to practice their customary rank-'n'-yank bloodletting this year.

That's because the ratings system is undergoing one of its most sweeping overhauls since the advent 20 years ago of Nielsen "people meters," a then-state-of-the-art audience measurement tool that offered more precision than the viewing diaries that participants had filled out for decades. The effect on the TV programs you watch could be comparable to what happened to the record industry in the early 1990s, when the emergence of detailed sales data collected by SoundScan upended long-cherished assumptions about the music people really wanted to buy (howdy there, Garth Brooks).

The new changes focus on digital video recorders, which are right now in about one-fifth of U.S. homes with television and soon will be in a lot more than that, because cable and satellite operators are including them with the set-top boxes they rent to many new customers.

This fall, homes with DVRs make up nearly 20% (compared with 9% last fall) of Nielsen's national sample of TV viewers -- the cohort whose closely scrutinized behavioral patterns are the most important single factor in deciding whether programs live or die.

More important, this season, for the first time ever, the TV business will have access to ratings data that take into account viewers who play back shows on their DVRs. Viewings up to three days after the original airing will be counted.

Why does that matter? Well, some shows are going to get a big bounce once the playback numbers are included (and yes, other shows won't get much help at all, which could lower their relative position in rankings).

Take, for instance, CBS' new sitcom "The Big Bang Theory," about two socially awkward young physicists. The show, which performed promisingly among people who watched the program live during its Monday premiere, added another 13% to its rating among adults ages 18 to 49, and that's just based on "time-shifted" playback later that night, according to Nielsen estimates. That's among the best playback performances of any new show this season.

This kind of adjustment has the potential to shake up prime-time program rankings -- and thus the kinds of decisions network executives make about which series to order, keep or cut.

"It will affect the rankings, no question about it," David Poltrack, executive vice president for research and planning at CBS, told Channel Island.

The advertising community agrees that the impact could be huge. "We are going to see dramatic differences this season in some ratings when the time-shifted data is included," Steve Sternberg, director of audience analysis for ad firm Magna Global, wrote me in an e-mail.

All of this may seem like a big, confusing change, because it is. Wasn't it just a few years ago, you ask, that network executives ran around acting as if loosing TiVo on the world was akin to handing nuclear weapons to Iran and North Korea? DVR technology (the development of which, by the way, the networks partly funded) allows viewers to skip commercials! The destruction of the TV industry, and possibly the remainder of Western civilization, would follow.

Now, though, TV executives have fallen deeply in love with DVRs. These little machines can help build a show's audience -- wow! The broadcast networks pushed the ad community to come to terms on getting the playback numbers into the overall ratings because the TV execs knew counting the extra viewers could only help shows, many of which are struggling mightily to find viewers during their "live" airings.

"The broadcast networks were very hot on getting" the playback numbers included in the ratings, said Andy Donchin, director of broadcast for New York ad firm Carat USA.

This follows the typical pattern of the entertainment industry, which when confronted with a groundbreaking new technology typically (1) fears and loathes it, then (2) grudgingly accommodates it and finally (3) guards it with leonine ferocity, like a winning lottery ticket. This is exactly what happened with the movie industry and VCRs.

A brief pause to rant: The playback issue is only tangentially related to a controversial and increasingly common network practice of compiling cumulative or "cume" ratings of multiple "live" airings and offering them up to journalists and other credulous folk as one big number. That's essentially what NBC did last week with two airings of the series premiere of its sci-fi hit "Heroes," as did PBS with Ken Burns' documentary "The War." This column generally takes a very dim view of such ratings-plumping tactics. Why not repeat a show 30 times so you can always report that "Seinfeld"-size number?

End of rant.

The important issue is: What now? Exactly how will these updated ratings affect what we all watch?

The short answer is that we don't entirely know. But there are certain intriguing patterns that have already developed.

Here's one: Playback almost always benefits scripted shows, like "Grey's Anatomy" or "30 Rock," more than unscripted programs such as "Survivor" or "Dancing With the Stars." That's because, as CBS' Poltrack explained, reality series usually feature a competition element and viewers want to see the results live before a co-worker or friend spoils the ending. Over time, playback data could therefore help scripted series in their battles to keep time slots from going to cheaper, unscripted programming.

Here's another pattern: Viewers who watch TV on playback are generally young. The median age of CBS' prime-time viewers last season was a relatively ancient 53. But the figure for those who watched CBS shows on DVR playback was 40. For the networks, this is probably the most crucial development of all, because in terms of "live" viewing the audience is getting old fast. For the first time last season, the combined prime-time audience of ABC, CBS and NBC had a median age of 50. You may notice that that's actually outside the 18-to-49 age range the networks usually sell -- and that's not the kind of news that network execs like to hear.

For series creators, none of this might mean much immediately. As Chuck Lorre, the executive producer behind both "Big Bang Theory" and "Two and a Half Men," told me, "My job is not distribution. . . . My job is to put on a good show that's worth watching."

But Lorre does recognize that the ground is shifting. If new ratings formulas mean more viewers for his latest show, he'll gladly take them, whenever and however they decide to watch.

"That's something that's going on with TV: Too many choices right now," he said.

The Channel Island column runs every Monday in Calendar. Contact Scott Collins at [email protected]
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