For years, Turner Broadcasting System Inc. has acted as a central ratings-data source on behalf of the cable industry, regularly supplying the numbers to the media as a courtesy. But this year, it will radically change the type of data it dispenses, a move that will cast its large networks in a favorable light.
Turner's plans have research chiefs at small and midsized networks crying foul. They charge that the viewership information Turner intends to provide in 2003 is self-promoting data, rather than information that gives a boost to the entire cable industry.
That's because the new type of information Turner plans to hand out — national ratings and audience-delivery data from Nielsen Media Research — will be geared toward well-distributed services such as Turner Network Television and TBS Superstation, each of which is in more than 87 million homes. Turner's data will now highlight large networks.
Putting a "spin" on ratings data, or touting numbers in viewership categories that make one's network look good, is a time-honored TV tradition. But some Turner rivals claim the programmer's new strategy, in terms of the information it will now purvey to the press, goes a bit too far.
"It seems like this is a self-serving move to position them at the top of every [ratings] list," said ABC Cable Networks group senior vice president of brand strategy and research Sandy Wax. "Yes, everybody positions their numbers so they're favorable, but at a certain point, where do you draw the line?"
Meanwhile, small and midsized networks — those in only in 30 million to 50 million homes, for example — said they expect to fall to the very bottom of some of the viewership lists that Turner will soon provide.
"This is going to unfairly advantage the fully distributed networks and overrepresent their performance," Wax said. "It's of great concern. It sort of sends the message that emerging and growing cable networks should be invisible, or be hidden a bit more. And it says that the fully distributed networks are the only ones out there to pay attention to."
Many programmers deem Turner as the ratings champion for the entire cable industry, a mantle that company now wants to shed. Although Turner has played that role for years, the giant programmer says times have changed, and it needs to provide new kinds of ratings data in order to compete head-to-head with broadcasters for ad dollars.
TNT and TBS need to be on an equal playing field with broadcast in terms of viewership comparisons, according to executives at the AOL Time Warner Inc. unit.
"They're ready to compete in the big pond," said Turner chief research officer Jack Wakshlag. "It's no longer TBS or TNT against FX or Oxygen … That's not where the upside of our business is.
"Our plan is to put ourselves in the same playing field as the broadcast networks. We're going to talk about the value of their deliveries versus the value of our deliveries."
Turner also argues that it's under no obligation to champion the smaller networks, in terms of the viewership data it makes public.
"Turner Research has processed Nielsen ratings as a service to the industry and a service to the press," Wakshlag said. "It costs us millions of dollars to acquire and process that data and a lot of money to provide that data every week.
"You've gone to my competitors and asked them, 'What do you think of this change?' My competitors wouldn't say it was good — even if it benefited the industry — because they're my competitors," Wakshlag said.
At a December press briefing in New York, Turner officials first disclosed that starting this year, they would change the type of Nielsen information the company has routinely released to the press. Turner would start providing data on cable networks based on the total TV universe, or national ratings, rather than coverage-area ratings, which encompass just the cable TV universe.
"It makes sense for Turner to position its brands this way," said Mike Pardee, senior vice president of research for Scripps Networks, the owner of Food Network and Home & Garden Television. "It makes sense for them, but I don't think it serves the cable industry well."
When a cable network's coverage-area rating is converted to a national rating, it drops. That's because coverage-area ratings are calculated as a percent of a network's actual distribution, while a national rating is a percentage of all 106.7 million U.S. TV households. As such, the less distribution a given network has, the more its rating would decrease when its numbers are tallied on a national basis.
For example, in October the 27.5 million subscriber SoapNet, part of ABC Cable, posted a 0.4 rating within its universe during primetime, according to Nielsen. That rating would drop to a 0.1 on a national basis — the reporting method Turner plans to employ this year. A network with a 0.1 coverage-area rating could see its national rating depicted as just a hash mark — too small to count.
TBS and TNT's numbers wouldn't dip as much when presented on a national basis, because they are widely distributed.
At the December briefing, Wakshlag added that Turner would provide more data on audience delivery, such as the number of persons 2 and older who view a network, and demographic info, like how many viewers aged 18 to 49 are watching, in a shift away from household ratings. Since many of Turner's networks have wide distribution, its services will reside near the top of those delivery lists.
There are 27 cable networks at 80 million homes or greater, which Wakshlag said bolsters the argument for abandoning coverage-area ratings.
It's undecided whether Turner this year will provide national ratings for the 49 cable networks on its current roster, or just the top 10, said Wakshlag.
These moves mark a substantial change from past practice. For years, Turner has provided coverage-area household ratings for cable networks to reporters from the trade and consumer press, whom Nielsen does not permit to buy ratings data for publication.
Instead, many journalists have used Turner's analysis of Nielsen numbers for ratings stories, allowing for year-to-year comparisons based on that consistent data. Over the years, that's added up to a very positive story for cable.
Turner officials, who repeatedly stressed that the programmer has never been obligated to provide the press with ratings information, claim that Multichannel News
is miffed about losing that convenient source of data.
Turner also pointed out that the press can get viewership data from other sources, such as MTV Networks, which offers cable demo data on a national basis, or from individual networks. ABC Cable also provides ratings data (a list that includes its own Disney Channel, which Turner doesn't report because the former premium service is not ad-supported).
"I'm not in the business of providing everybody information on every television network — that's Nielsen's business," Wakshlag said. "If another network is interested in providing information that lets you believe that they are succeeding, that's their prerogative."
He charged that smaller networks "unfairly benefited" from Turner's tradition of supplying the media with its ratings.
"For those networks to believe that we ever thought of ourselves as being the people of Nielsen ratings to the press, for the purpose of serving every single network's interest, isn't fair to us or Nielsen, or fair to depict what we've done over the course of time for the press," Wakshlag said. "What you hear is the carping of some small cable networks who are unhappy because they're going to have to provide this information themselves."
Nonetheless, some cable-network research officials were critical of Turner shifting the way it will provide the Nielsen data.
"It's pretty disingenuous to be changing your standard of measure according to what benefits you at the moment," said Lifetime Television senior vice president of research Tim Brooks. "I'm not opposed to doing it, but it should supplement, not replace, what we have now."
Proponents of coverage-area ratings said that those numbers became the measure of choice for cable because they accurately reflect how a network has performed in the homes where it's actually carried.
"If you strip out the coverage-area aspect and put ratings on a national basis, it will really disguise a lot of the solid performance that's happening for cable networks under 50 million homes," ABC Cable's Wax said. "Their [ratings] numbers will be divided by two, or three or five, depending on the distribution."
Brooks agreed that national ratings mask a small network's progress — and make such progress hard to gauge. "It's only showing you part of the picture," he said. "You'll never spot the comers, or the networks that viewers are flocking to."
Cable's strength against broadcast has been its ability to attract targeted, loyal audience segments, and not mass audiences, argued Scripps' Pardee. Hence, coverage-area ratings are the key.
"If you're put in 20 million homes that don't even have access to your channel, it confuses and muddies the water," Pardee said.
Court TV also made the case for Turner to continue to provide coverage-area ratings.
"It would be folly not to look at an emerging network's in-universe [coverage area] ratings, since that's the leading indicator of a network's competitive audience," a Court TV spokeswoman said. "Cable ratings reported against total U.S. television homes benefit fully distributed networks in appearance.
"Turner's new focus on reporting national ratings among adults 18 to 49 to the press opens up the top-ranking bragging rights to TNT or TBS, rather than Lifetime."
Several cable-network officials said that operators look to ratings as one factor in deciding which networks to add — another reason why coverage-area ratings are important.
"When I've talked with cable operators and satellite providers, what they're looking for is an overall sense of how different channels are doing where they're carried, so they can start to understand which channels they should be considering either to add to their lineup or reposition in their lineup," Wax said. "That's going to be lost now."
But according to Wakshlag, cable operators get local ratings in their local markets on a total-TV basis.
"What SoapNet wants you to do is tell everyone how well they're doing among a very small group of households that can get their channel," Wakshlag said. "That's their prerogative and they're entitled to do that … We're giving you more information than you've ever gotten. It's the information that advertisers are interested in seeing."
However, several cable-network officials claimed that ad agencies are interested in actual impressions, not the overall delivery data Turner will be meting out this year.
It would be a "disservice" to discard coverage-area ratings, said FX Networks senior vice president of strategic planing and research Steve Leblang. He compared the industry's use of coverage-area ratings to broadcasters' boasts about their audience share.
"When a broadcaster looks at share, it's a function of HUT [homes using television] levels, or how many homes actually have their TV sets turned on," said Leblang, noting that share and coverage-area are similar in that they show "given what you have to work with [as a network], how do you do?"
"When The WB stops talking about share, then we'll stop looking at coverage-area ratings," he added.