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Television’s biggest winners of the 2015-16 season are barely winners at all. The few returning broadcast series that saw zero ratings movement are considered the hits, as fractured viewing and the era of Peak TV rewrite the rules of conventional audience measurement. That’s why this season might be the last judged by Nielsen’s current live-plus-7-day measuring stick.
Despite the May axing of 19 first-year series and such surprise dumpings as ABC’s Castle and Nashville, cancellations are proving rarer, even as linear ratings shrink. That’s because, of the 60 returning scripted series to air on the five main broadcast networks this season, only one finished with improved ratings from the previous year. And that show premiered in the ‘90s. Law & Order: SVU‘s modest gain, up an incremental 4 percent during its 17th cycle, is a case study in how the industry standard week of DVR and on-demand views doesn’t provide the most complete narrative any longer — or at least not one that the networks are eager to tell.
“We have found that audiences continue to grow beyond seven days in every instance, some by 58 percent among adults 18-to-49,” says Nielsen audience insights senior vp Glenn Enoch. “Growth after seven days is consistent, but the rate of growth varies by genre. Some programs need to be viewed in the week they air, while consumers use on-demand libraries to view others over time, like animated comedies and episodic dramas.”
To that end, on Aug. 29, Nielsen will up the turnaround on live-plus-7-day reporting (no more 15-day wait time), offering daily rolling on time-shifting, and it will start extending the tail past the long-established extra week of views. The measurement giant announced in March that the window for regularly reported on-demand and DVR data now will extend to 35 days after the original airdate.
The extra draw between weeks two and five is not minor for many scripted series. Grey’s Anatomy, again ABC’s highest-rated drama in its 12th season, saw its live-plus-7 average in the key demographic drop 3 percent from the previous season. But the 35-day trail of VOD (with online streams) adds another 1.5 rating points among 18-to-49, making for a 6 percent improvement from the show’s 11th season. (Of note: 1.5 is the complete live-plus-7-day rating for Thursday neighbor and surprise renewal The Catch.)
Nielsen also still is developing its multiplatform standard, Nielsen Total Audience, though the timetable is contingent upon ongoing talks with its clients — some of which are more eager than others to implement a system that will enable networks to see everyone’s digital hands. Cable, where ratings have been ravaged harder, is particularly eager to see new measurements that could expand audiences via Hulu and network-owned streaming apps. ESPN chief John Skipper touted the product during his upfront presentation May 17, saying: “You’re going to see some very dramatic out-of-home numbers from ESPN. They will be in our Nielsen numbers starting in 2017.”
On the broadcast side, one source says NBC’s multiplatform audience for full-episode streams is up 14 percent from the previous season, driven by increases for Hulu on connected devices. And Fox proved its appetite for multiplatform in November, when chiefs Dana Walden and Gary Newman issued a brandwide gag order on same-day ratings reporting after seeing increased growth outside the traditional numbers. Golden goose Empire, which got flak during its sophomore run for live ratings declines, also looks much better in the multiplatform light. The latest numbers have the series averaging 21.2 million viewers per episode across platforms during its second season — an addition of 5.5 million viewers, or more than 25 percent of its total audience. “Ten of our series double or more their same-day audiences with delayed viewing across platforms,” says Fox senior vp and head of research Will Somers. “Our nonlinear average audience — viewing across VOD, Hulu and FoxNow — for original entertainment programming this season is up 19 percent from the 2014-15 broadcast season average.”
Still, these ratings remain largely a matter of perception. Most media buyers are quick to note that the difference between C3 and C7 ratings are minimal. The notion of a C35 rating, something that likely will be floated in future upfront markets, may not bring the boosts needed to shift the ad-buying metric yet again.
But perception does matter, and networks do at least have the comfort that the latest crop of series orders already have been the subject of heavy discussion and engagement online. Early winners, per digital analytics firm ListenFirst, are Fox’s Prison Break reboot and NBC’s Dan Fogelman dramedy This Is Us. “There’s enough general frustration that the current ratings miss viewers, wherever they are, that more networks are looking for other valuations for how their programs reach consumers,” says ListenFirst co-CEO Jason Klein. “There are many series undervalued by linear ratings that have exceptionally high engagement.”
This story first appeared in the June 10 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.
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