TV Long View: The Case for Same-Day Ratings

THE MASKED SINGER: The Skeleton - Publicity - H 2019
Michael Becker/FOX

This week ABC announced that it would no longer send out daily reports on the previous night's ratings. It joins Fox — which mostly dropped the practice four years ago — and a number of cable networks in waiting for delayed numbers to tout how well its programming is performing (or spin the less-than-ideal numbers).

The network's reasoning is that same-day ratings, the ones that Nielsen releases every morning, only tell part of the story of a given show's audience — and an increasingly small part, at that.

That's empirically true. Nielsen also releases ratings after three, seven and even 35 days of delayed viewing. Just about every entertainment show on TV (i.e., not live sports or news programs) gets a good-sized ratings boost from delayed viewing. Viewing on digital platforms, which Nielsen doesn't measure but individual networks track, gives an even bigger boost.

For shows like NBC's comedy The Good Place and ABC's first-year drama Stumptown, the initial ratings can be only a quarter or a third of their eventual, all-in, five-week total. (Thirty-five days is as far out as Nielsen measures. Networks can keep tallying shows' digital performance for as long as they wish to do so.)

As ABC Entertainment president Karey Burke put it in a memo to her team announcing the change, "People used to plan their lives around television, now they plan television around their lives."

So, yes, the same-day ratings that appear on The Hollywood Reporter and scores of other places each morning are incomplete.

Even knowing all that, it's hard to make the case for completely disregarding same-day numbers.

For one thing, some of the biggest shows on TV — live sports telecasts and awards shows like the Oscars and Grammys — pull in virtually all of their audiences on the night they air. Burke acknowledged as much in her note, saying ABC would still report same-day ratings for live events (and did so two days after that for the CMA Awards).

Some of the allure of same-day ratings also comes from the twin forces of habit and need for information. It's only in the last decade or so that delayed-view ratings have even existed, let alone had a meaningful impact on the TV landscape as a whole. The numbers that came through each morning pretty well told the whole story. Even though they don't now, there's still a desire from a lot of TV watchers (professional and otherwise) to see those first results, compare trend lines and get a sense of how shows are stacking up relative to each other.

That is, to be sure, a habit borne of decades of the old practice. Advocates of not discussing same-day ratings often make a sports analogy, noting that games aren't called after the first quarter.

True — but there's a reason the score is on the screen in the first quarter and throughout the game. The same-day ratings are a starting point, but they also help provide context for all the data that comes later.

The shows that start out in front, the Masked Singers and This Is Us-es and NCIS-es, are usually among those with the biggest bumps in delayed viewing. The rising tide that is delayed viewing lifts all shows, but by and large, the ones that start near the top of the rankings stay there.

There are exceptions, of course, delayed-viewing stalwarts like Stumptown and The Good Doctor and shows that overperform on digital platforms, a la The Good Place, Law & Order: SVU (whose digital audience is nearly 20 years younger than its on-air audience) and Fox's animated comedies. Those things help fill out the ratings picture. The same-day ratings are the first strokes.

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