So the Fall season is almost upon us and this year’s new and returning shows will have their debuts en masse next starting next week. And once they have bowed on the schedule, the Nielsen ratings will be released and the many prognosticators (myself included) will pounce on those and start making their predictions on which shows count as a hit and which ones have tanked. But then aren’t the overnights that measure the audience based on a show's live broadcast (or same-day viewing on DVR) supposed to be “worthless” (CBS boss Les Moonves’ words)? And why should we judge shows on the early numbers instead of the delayed viewing which gives a more complete accounting of the audience? The networks are claiming that the Live+3 and Live+7 numbers are more important and that those will be the numbers they use to determine the fate of the shows that they air. Should we shift the conversation to those, or do the ratings no longer matter in the multi-platform universe of the Peak TV era?
While it is true that the networks are claiming that they will focus on the delayed viewing numbers and I would argue those are more representative of a show’s audience, there is an important thing to remember here. As with politicians, don’t believe what network executives tell you. They want to draw more attention to the delayed viewing because those numbers look heftier than the paltry stats the overnights have been delivering in the ratings-pocalypse era. But it’s all just a hat trick. With the many, many viewing options in the Peak TV era, split across an overload of content and a variety of platforms, the ratings numbers continue to shrink. That’s especially true of the Big Four broadcast networks (ABC, CBS, FOX, and NBC) because they have seen the largest exodus of viewers over the last few years. So by shifting attention to delayed viewing stats, they turn the focus to the padded numbers to hide the truth of their dwindling audience.
But the fact is that no matter what those network executives tell you, they have a ticker-tape machine with the overnight numbers spewing out the day after their shows air. That’s because those numbers indicate how many people watched during the live broadcast and that’s what is important to the sponsors that paid for advertising time (and that advertising covers the production costs of the shows). Also, the overnights continue to act as a leading indicator of the larger audience that will tune in to these shows (as followers of sites like TV by the Numbers, and TV Grim Reaper and my own Cancelled Sci Fi have seen). The Live+3 and Live+7 numbers will pad the overnights but they typically do not change the relative standings of a show. Last season, FOX’s Minority Report bowed to a disappointing 1.1 rating based on the overnights which improved to a 2.0 when the Live+7 delayed viewing was factored in. But it still ranked as one of the lowest shows on the network no matter which metric it was measured by. And that holds mostly true of all the shows across the broadcast networks. We have seen a few exceptions where moderate to low rated shows like Forever (ABC), Constantine (NBC), and Limitless (CBS) improved their rankings when delayed viewing was factored in. But it didn’t help save them from cancellation, and the “worthless” overnights predicted throughout the season that their networks would cut and run from those shows.
The above holds mostly true of the broadcast networks as the cable channels have started to change their behavior and appear to pay more attention to the delayed viewing results. But with many of the shows from the cablers slipping to “ratings noise” levels based on the overnights, they have had to change the way they do business. Many have turned to international financing and partnerships to help with funding their productions. And thus the broader picture of a show’s audience is more important to their partners when determining whether or not it is successful. Recent shows like The Shannara Chronicles (MTV), Killjoys (Syfy), and Orphan Black (BBC America) have pulled pretty low numbers based on the overnights, but have seen decent gains when delayed viewing is factored in. “Stickiness” on the social networks (meaning a show trends well on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, etc.) has also been cited by the cable channels as a measure of success (and even by some of the broadcast nets, though to a much smaller degree).
Of course, you could argue that the ratings are poor representation of the audience, with all the platforms that shows can be viewed on nowadays, and should not be relied on at all. But until a satisfactory measurement replaces them, we are not quite there yet (though new service SymphonyAM appears to be offering a viable alternative). Business is driven by numbers and the television industry has relied on the Nielson ratings for over sixty years. Change comes slow, and the broadcast networks have definitely been lagging far behind despite clear signs of major shifts in the landscape. I’m guessing that the overnights will continue to act as good predictors of the broadcast network cancellation / renewal decisions for at least another year. They won’t be as reliable as in the past, but more often than not, if a show is pulling low overnights in comparison to other programming on one of the broadcast nets, its chances of cancellation increase. That may no longer hold true as soon as five years from now, but we haven’t broken away from the paradigm just yet.
So how do you typically watch television these days? Live, DVR, internet, etc.? Cast your vote in the poll below.