Summer Viewing: How Less Becomes More

8/17/2007 8:00 PM Eastern

With cable television viewership, what you see is not what you get.

These days, more becomes less. Then it becomes more again.

And year-over-year comparisons for cable’s hottest season of the year — the summer, when new high-profile shows are rolled out — are pretty much meaningless, if you listen to ratings analysts chasing a clear picture of who really has watched what.

Alleged statistic: Overall TV viewing is down 2% from last summer.

This comes from Tim Brooks, the researcher and historian at Lifetime Television. He figures 38.1 million households tuned in to cable networks on average in primetime, from June through the middle of August. That’s actually up from a 37.9 million average last summer.

But a drop in broadcast viewing pulls the overall average into decline, he said. Only 17.3 million homes tuned into the seven broadcast networks’ programming, down from 19.1 million a year ago.

Not so fast, says Turner Broadcasting System chief research officer Jack Wakshlag. Right now, he believes viewership is underreported for broadcast and cable networks alike — and when various ways of shifting viewership to other times and onto other devices are counted properly, viewership likely will prove to be up.

“You don’t know” right now, said Wakshlag. But “you’re not off 2%.”

Alleged reason for alarm: The huge drop-off in viewership for a bevy of star-laden, big-budget series that debuted this summer on cable.

The Holly Hunter self-destructive-cop-and-guardian-angel drama, Saving Grace, for example, has lost viewers for every episode in the first four weeks of its run. The show was down 27%, from 6.4 million viewers in its debut, the most-watched cable premiere of the summer, to 4.7 million in week four. All the same, TNT has ordered an additional 15 episodes.

Then there’s Damages, the vehicle for another top-drawer Hollywood actress, Glenn Close. It was widely written off for dead by everyone but its own network, FX, after the third week. The drop: From 3.7 million viewers of its “commercial-free” introduction to 2.0 million two weeks later.

“You can’t be happy” with that, Wakshlag said.

But Wakshlag’s comment came in looking at just two weeks of Nielsen numbers for Damages. And, in television today, the fourth week is the “critical moment” for a cable show, according to Brooks.

This isn’t the 1960s anymore. It’s not just three networks going head to head; shows don’t open big and stay big.

There’s competition from hundreds of channels, 20 or 30 of which may be pushing high-profile new or returning series at the same time. There’s more marketing. More stunting, teases, hooks and nudity to turn heads.

All of which means, “you can buy a premiere rating,” Brooks said. And then the dust settles.

The average drop-off from week one to week two for a new cable series this year has been 17% of viewership, according to an analysis of 21 shows by Lifetime. The drop from week two to week three is another 11%.

Alleged end of road: Week four.

Then comes the “critical moment.” The floor should show up by the fourth week, Brooks contended. On average, the audience will pick up 3% at that point. If you’re still falling, watch for the ax.

Which comes back to Damages, the ratings-damaged FX property. It actually bounced up slightly in week four, reaching 2.1 million viewers, up about 65,000.

Even though that’s still a 42% drop from the opener, FX is not ready to pull in its horns. “Not all the precincts have reported in yet,” according to FX Networks senior vice president of strategic planning and research Steve LeBlang.

What he’s referring to is the “ever-growing phenomenon” of recording shows digitally and playing them back later. FX finds that one in four viewings of its hit show, Rescue Me, now come from digital playbacks. LeBlang estimates other shows, such as Damages, will get 10% to 15% bumps, when numbers come in from Nielsen showing all digital viewing in the first seven days of an episode.

Alleged systemic error: The underreporting of viewing, after a new episode first runs.

This starts with the difficulties of determining when a digital recording is actually watched. If, for instance, the second episode of Damages is watched 10 days after it first runs, that viewing as of right now will go unreported in Nielsen’s numbers, Wakshlag noted.

Then, let’s say a TV viewer recorded Damages while watching a show on another channel. That viewer won’t be counted later as watching Damages. Why? The fan is already down for having watched something from 10 p.m. to 11 p.m. on Tuesday. The person can’t be recorded as a “person using television” at that time, twice. But in a fashion, Wakshlag said, a viewer can — even if the recording is watched five, 10 or 15 days later.

But even that may not help Damages overcome the acid test. The show’s viewership is down 31% from what FX ran in the same time period a year ago, Wakshlag notes.

The biggest systemic cause of undercounting of an audience, though, relates to a fundamental practice of many cable programmers. They don’t get credit for repeat broadcasts, in a given week. In effect, the networks use their schedules, like a DVR, to play back shows at different intervals for the convenience of different strains of couch potato.

Take Army Wives, the most-popular series in Lifetime’s history. It’s one of only a couple new shows — USA Network’s Burn Notice is another — to have picked up viewership after its first episode ran this summer. It grew from 3.5 million to as much as 3.9 million viewers and is now at 3.7 million.

But the 200,000 viewers gained from the first showing of an episode is a drop in the bucket. Much greater is the pickup from repeats.

In the first week, the show was telecast 10 different times. The unduplicated audience by the end: 12.6 million people. By the end of its second week, the second episode was seen by 13.7 million people.

That’s the audience size enjoyed by some broadcast shows. While it may take ABC, NBC, CBS or Fox just one airing to hit 10 million sets of eyes, it could take a cable show eight or 10 times to reach that level. But it can get there, Brooks said.

Conventional methods of tracking eyeballs reflect a “different way of measuring things” that “obscures how many people are watching” a show, he said.

If you really want to figure out how many people are actually watching a show, you now have to count all the ways and all the times that a show gets watched.

“Before we worry about how much less TV viewing there is, let’s figure out how to calculate it,” Wakshlag said.

Once current realities are accounted for correctly, he, Brooks and Leblang contend, viewing this summer likely went up, not down.

“The sky is not falling,” Wakshlag said.

Network Program Thousands of Adults 18-49 Versus A Year Ago
SOURCE: Turner Research
USA The Starter Wife 2,382141%
USA Burn Notice1,963126%
LIFETIME Army Wives1,912125%
HISTORY Ice Road Truckers1,716249%
TNT Saving Grace1,68823%
DISCOVERY After the Catch1,64827%
TBS Bill Engvall1,61255%
TBS House of Payne1,60054%
FX Damages1,297-31%
MTV Reunited: Las Vegas1,237-23%
New Shows Returning Shows
Episode Hey Paula Damages Army Wives Side Order State of Mind Saving Grace Mad Men Burn Notice Scott Baio Closer 4400 Rescue Me
SOURCE: Nielsen Media Research
Gain/Loss in percent-27.25%-41.99%7.61%-42.14%-27.68%-27.11%-48.39%3.96%-3.68%-16.44%-12.50%-8.79%
Net Household Rating Program Comparison Premiere Date Wk 1 Wk 2 Wk 3 Wk 4 Wk 2 vs. Wk 1 Wk 3 vs. Wk 2 Wk 4 vs. Wk 3
SOURCE: Lifetime Television research
FX Dirt1/2/
ABC FAMILY Lincoln Heights1/8/
SCI FI The Dresden Files1/21/
FX The Riches3/12/
SPIKE Bullrun3/13/
SCI FI Painkiller Jane4/13/
USA The Starter Wife5/31/
LIFETIME Army Wives6/3/
TNT Heartland6/18/
USA Burn Notice6/28/
ABC FAMILY Greek7/9/
ESPN The Bronx is Burning7/9/
LIFETIME Side Order of Life7/15/
LIFETIME State of Mind7/15/
AMC Mad Men7/19/
SPIKE The Kill Point7/22/
TNT Saving Grace7/23/
FX Damages7/24/
VH1 I Hate My 30s7/26/
SPIKE Murder7/31/070.50.620%N/AN/A
SCI FI Flash Gordon8/10/071.5N/AN/AN/A

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