A month of Sundays in one ratings week


NEW YORK -- I'm thinking of getting a T-shirt that says, "I Survived Premiere Week 2007."

Except that two weeks after it began, Premiere Week still isn't over.

The 2007-08 season was destined to be a watershed year well before the first pilot aired, with the first major change in TV currency agreed upon in this year's upfront. No longer are live program ratings the basis of ad rates. Almost everyone, broadcast and cable, allowed Nielsen Media Research to measure viewership of the average commercial minutes during the course of three days.

Because commercial-minute ratings don't mean much to the average viewer, Nielsen and the networks still are paying attention to program ratings. Those numbers give the earliest determination of whether a show is doing well, which is crucial for a lot of reasons, not the least of which is the public relations battle the networks always fight.

This year, more than ever, things weren't cut and dried. DVRs are much better represented in the Nielsen sample this year, which doesn't give a true apples-to-apples comparison with last year's performance. Live-plus-same-day viewing ratings were down about 10% compared with a year ago, which became a big headline. Many shows, like "CSI: Miami" and "Grey's Anatomy," are down year-over-year.

Or are they? When you factor in DVR viewing, especially with popular periods like 9 p.m. Thursday, viewership will straighten out and could even increase. So what we all wrote last week could turn out to be only part of the story, the part we knew at the time. But with what has to be the longest period of time in recent premiere week history, we won't start to know until the week of Oct. 15 when the live-plus-7 and commercial-plus-3 ratings are released. It takes about four weeks from airdate to process them.

Muddying the waters even further was NBC's decision to replay "Heroes" with the same commercial load, adding to its Season 2 premiere audience and dropping a low-rated Saturday hour from its averages. That new Nielsen rule change could be altered any day now, but it didn't make for easier work for TV reporters or network executives at the time.

Also getting into the fray was Steve Sternberg of Madison Avenue researcher Magna Global. Sternberg sent out a missive last week telling advertisers not to put too much stock into what the media is reporting about the TV season. One of Sternberg's points was that the media was reporting on data streams that don't mean a lot in the brave new commercial-plus-3 world. Sternberg wrote that how one network does against another in live ratings are at least "directionally true," but we in the media run into trouble when we try to compare with last season's results.

"When they compare ratings performance with last season, and when they talk about audience declines, it is misleading at best," Sternberg wrote. "And the actual ratings they report are not the ones we look at or use to buy the programming."

But the networks certainly are making decisions about programming and strategy based on the day-to-day numbers. Premiere Week still means a great deal, even though it lasts a month.