Rethinking Broadcast TV's Long-Tail Ratings "Sea Change"

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Illustration by: Dalbert Vilarino

As the total volume of scripted TV series hit 532 in 2019, spurred by the rise of direct-to-consumer platforms, the traditional broadcast model has been upended. Now the measurement portion of the TV business is starting to catch up to how viewers actually consume shows in the streaming era.

The decades-old viewership model had relied on gathering people to watch a program — and the commercials — at the same time, and measuring that audience as accurately as possible. Delayed viewing and streaming has rendered the "as many people at once" part of the equation harder than ever. Outside of live sports and awards shows, just two primetime series this season, CBS veterans NCIS and 60 Minutes, average more than 10 million viewers for their initial airings.

Long-tail ratings data — from Nielsen for up to five weeks after a program airs and, separately, a dozen or more digital platforms ranging from network apps to Playstations — can help broadcasters make the case that their shows are still relevant. The audience isn't necessarily there at 9 p.m. on a Thursday, but it shows up. That, in turn, allows ad-supported networks to get commercials to viewers wherever they may be — though the stew of digital data means ad buyers don't necessarily have a single currency on which to base their decisions.

"I definitely think 'sea change' is the right term to describe it," Will Somers, Fox's head of research, tells The Hollywood Reporter. "We've seen streaming of shows become so commonplace, and it represents a really big component of their audiences now."

Nielsen started measuring delayed viewing back in 2006, when fewer than 20 percent of TV homes had DVRs. Even a few years later, it was rare if a show added more than 2 million viewers or much more than half a point in adults 18-to-49 to its same-day rating. This season, 37 series are growing by at least that much — without adding other platforms, which can double a show's numbers after 35 days.

The season premiere of ABC stalwart Grey's Anatomy, for instance, brought in about 6.5 million viewers the night it aired. Five weeks later, across all platforms, the audience ballooned to 16.6 million. This Is Us went from 7.9 million viewers for its first airing on NBC to more than 19 million five weeks later. Both shows also brought in 8 million or more viewers in the key ad-sales demo of adults 18-49. 

"Every show ends up having its own personality on digital and delayed viewing," says Jeff Bader, chief research officer at NBCUniversal. Overnight ratings, the former currency of the business, can sometimes reflect only a quarter of a given show's eventual audience. "Our comedies tend to really take off on digital. When you start looking at 35 days and beyond you see quite a bit of growth, much more so than for some of the dramas."

The ad load on a streaming platform is typically smaller than in an on-air broadcast, but viewers often can't skip the commercials. Shows like This Is Us and Grey's Anatomy can draw up to 5 million additional viewers on digital platforms. That viewers are willing to watch those commercials could bode well for ad-supported streaming platforms like Comcast's forthcoming Peacock.

For advertisers, however, the loss of that "immediate mass reach," as executive vp video investment at Horizon Next Michael O'Connor calls it, has complicated the ad-buying process. So has the fact that each network uses its own method to calculate multiplatform audience numbers — which Nielsen, long the accepted currency of the network business, doesn't measure. "It's a compound effect of on-demand and nonlinear viewing hurting linear TV by siphoning off viewers, but also, from a Nielsen perspective and a currency perspective, it's not capturing the way people are viewing," says O'Connor.

While each broadcast network uses its own method to parse digital viewing data, they all attempt to provide numbers akin to Nielsen's measures of average viewership and ratings for a program. ABC Entertainment president Karey Burke was head of Freeform when the Disney-owned cable network stopped reporting same-day ratings, both internally and to its creative partners. She says that after years of reliance on overnight numbers, "it took a couple of seasons for our producers to believe that that was not how we were going to be making our renewal decisions."

"But we had our partners in our ad-sales team saying congratulations after they saw these live-threes and live-sevens," Burke adds, "because they were paying attention to what they were selling, and by those measures those shows were doing very well."

The more expansive data also allows for better targeting of ads, which O'Connor says is useful when competing with digital giants like YouTube and Facebook, at least to a point. "Being able to get more granular in targeting, can that counterbalance some of the lack of scale at this point? That's a possibility, but I do think immediate mass reach is important to a media plan," he says. "As we work through it, it's just about finding the right cost for that targeting."

Of course, the ratings figures that really drive the business — those for commercials — are rarely made public. Conventional wisdom about C3 and C7 ratings has long been that they tend to correlate pretty well with same-day ratings, but both Bader and Somers say that's not necessarily the case anymore. "[I]t varies pretty dramatically by program," Somers notes. "If you look at a show like Prodigal Son, there was a good amount of time shifting for the premiere, … [and] it increased by 43 percent from same-day to C7. Empire picked up 49 percent from same-day to C7."

On average, entertainment shows improve their 18-to-49 ratings by about 20 percent from same-day to seven-day ratings. The longer and more detailed measurement of viewing also helps network sales teams make the case that the audience hasn't gone away. NBC offers what it calls "C-flight" measurement, where it can show clients every place an ad runs, whether during an initial broadcast or on a digital platform five days later.

"We want to be able to deliver to our clients, based on these changing viewership patterns," says Mark Marshall, president ad sales and client partnerships at NBCUniversal. "Obviously, the way that we guaranteed people three years ago isn't the right way to do it."

For instance, Marshall says, if a studio buys a spot on a Monday edition of The Voice for a movie opening that Friday, the ad will run on air during the show — and also anytime someone watches The Voice on an ad-supported digital platform in the subsequent days leading up to the film's release.

Those long-tail numbers and digital data streams bring up other issues for advertisers, from how to make sense of each company's numbers to figuring out how to capture a certain scale of viewership across multiple outlets, rather than in one place.

"The strength of linear TV has been immediate reach and frequency on a large scale. So as you start to spread that across 35 days, does it lose some of the impact? Potentially," says O'Connor. "What's compelling about some of the larger content portfolios, like NBCUniversal or Disney, is they're huge. They have tons of scale. It's figuring out how to harness that scale in the short term to make it act like TV did five, 10, 15 years ago."

One thing all the new data does allow is better targeting of ads. "Can that counterbalance some of the lack of scale at this point?" O'Connor asks. "That's a possibility, but I do think immediate mass reach is important to a media plan. As we work through it, it's just about finding the right cost for that targeting."

More expansive ratings data also has allowed network research teams to make more confident projections about a show's performance — at least in the realm of Nielsen-measured delayed viewing. "We have a pretty decent handle on it," says Elizabeth Sloan, senior vp consumer insights at Disney ABC TV Group. "When we're estimating or forecasting the performance of our shows, we can take into account what we believe the factor will be for delayed viewing. So it's less of a mystery to us than it may appear to be from an outsider's perspective."

A version of this story first appeared in the Jan. 29 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.