3 New Ways the TV Networks Are Looking at Ratings... But Do They Matter?

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I don't know about you guys, but it sure seems like there's a lot of information about TV viewership trends being thrown at us this season. Let me put on my grandpa outfit for a second and note that back in my day (like 2004), all we had to determine what shows were popular were the Nielsen overnights. For the last few years, Nielsen has given us three-day and seven-day DVR ratings for most shows, which has made the ratings picture a little clearer. But this year all hell has broken loose. If you follow any news source that covers TV industry news, you've probably noticed an increased amount of discussion about data points that were previously less important: 30-day viewership numbers, streaming and on-demand viewership, and pesky Twitter ratings. 

If it seems like there's a lot of data out there right now and you're unsure about what's valuable and what's not as far as a show getting canceled or renewed, don't fret. You are not alone. We barely understand this stuff, too. But we wanted to provide a streamlined guide for some of the newer measurements that are being more regularly reported on this season and make note of why you're seeing them. This is what we know—or at least what we think we know.


What they are: As the name suggests, the 30-day ratings cover a period of up to 30 days past the initial live airing. Nielsen regularly reports on Live+3 and Live+7 ratings to give us an idea of what's being watched in the first few days or week after the live viewing; the big difference between the 30-day and the +3 or +7 numbers is obviously the time difference. However, what's important to note is that the 30-day ratings don't actually measure DVR viewership between days 8 and 30 of a given 30-day period. Meaning that even if you're a Nielsen home, if you're way behind on The Blacklist and plan to watch Episode 6 tonight, it doesn't count in the 30-day ratings even though it aired within the last month. Currently, Nielsen only measures DVR viewing through the first seven days after the live episode—so what do the 30-day ratings actually measure? Non-DVR watching like any encore presentations and various multiplatform outlets, like Hulu, network sites, and more. Thus, 30-day ratings are a simple formula: Live viewership plus +7 viewership + encore viewership + multiplatform viewership.

Where you'll see them: It's important to know that the networks are the ones putting these 30-day ratings reports together, not Nielsen. They're using the Nielsen-provided data and their own internal data about multiplatform or encores, which could, in theory, be manipulated in a 100 different ways. Some of the networks even tabulate their 30-day ratings differently, so there's no consistent way to make one-to-one comparisons. As a result, you're going to see them in snazzy, upliftingly worded press releases like this and this

How much they matter: All of these things are in the eye of the beholder, but 30-day ratings only matter as much an individual network wants to make them matter. Fox and CBS seem to be the most invested in putting out press releases about some of their more low-rated shows doing better once 30-day figures are taken into account, but they're each using different methods to tabulate the ratings—whatever they need to do to make shows like Hostages or Brooklyn Nine-Nine seem more successful. The numbers are certainly interesting to see, but that doesn't mean the important people in the industry care. And by "important people" I unfortunately mean "advertisers." Advertisers aren't paying for spots between act breaks on episodes that are watched a month later, which is why Nielsen doesn't tabulate that data to begin with. 


What they are: "Multiplatform" is a sort of catchall term for the number of different, LEGAL ways that we watch television today, including on-demand viewing and web-streaming. This is the kind of data that the networks have typically kept private, or at least it hasn't been as widely reported on as the Nielsen-approved viewership numbers. As I said above, the different networks are tabulating this stuff differently, and it's not always clear exactly what online platforms count. Are the networks with stuff on Hulu including both that and their official website players? What about the networks that have official app video players? Shockingly, it's confusing.

Where you'll see them: In the same kinds of places where you'll see the 30-day ratings: Network press releases. One of the more complicated things about multiplatform ratings is that some networks are tabulating and promoting them after just a few days, while others are waiting until that nice, round 30-day mark to make them public. Take a look at this one for Scandal's Season 3 premiere, an announcement that was dispatched by ABC, and you'll see what I'm talking about. It mentions a few specifics (streaming data comes from the official network player and Hulu), but this info is only covers the episode's first five days. Considering the fact that Scandal is only available on Hulu Plus within the first-five-days window, we can imagine that between days six and 30, the viewership for the premiere went up quite a bit.

How much they matter: Somewhat? I swear I'm not grasping at straws here. The difference in approach between ABC's release for Scandal and what CBS and Fox has put out there for its various programs tells us that the networks are interested in different things and this data can be used to support multiple goals. If you have a show that does gangbusters in the traditional Nielsen ways, multiplatform data can help make that first-week figure look even bigger. If you have a show that doesn't do very well with live viewers, or even with the +3 data, then waiting until the 30-day mark allows you to point to the fact that people are still watching, just in different ways and at different speeds. Advertisers might be more interested in online streaming data because they pay to put ads there, as they do on some on-demand services as well. But do they care about online streaming that comes 27 days after the live episode? I'm not so sure. 


What they are: Perhaps the most confusing of the three. Twitter ratings are tabulated in concert with Nielsen, in hopes of measuring not just the number of tweets about a given show (though those are tracked as well), but the reach of those tweets and activity. Meaning, these ratings try to account for how many 'unique' people see tweets about shows on any given night or in any given week. Nielsen and Twitter also measure the number of unique authors composing those tweets. They really like the word unique, apparently. Unsurprisingly, the most-tweeted-about shows are not always the most-watched shows. 

Where you'll see them: Well, Twitter and Nielsen put them out every morning and provide updated weekly charts as well. I actually thought that we would see these discussed much more frequently this fall, but it seems like most of the chatter about this new type of data has to do with how flawed it is.

How much they matter: Not much, probably, and there are a number of issues and reasons why. First is the fact that Twitter is supremely invested in making these data points matter, because Twitter is of course a public company now and it wants TV-related tweets to be part of the 'value' of the company. Second is the fact that the data doesn't take into account quality or content of the tweets measured, it only notes that the tweets exist. So if I hashtag Dads when I tweet "#Dads makes me want to die," then it still counts. If we assume that this whole system is in place to convince advertisers that they shouldn't pull out of TV ads or that they should partner with Twitter—and it is—then advertisers probably do care whether the heavily tweeted-about show they're linking up with is actually liked by the people who are tweeting about it. Heck, a handful of dedicated fans could simply tweet until their fingers fell off and it would alter the data. 

These numbers are all interesting, especially if, like me, you're fascinated by how the industry deals with changing viewer habits and technology. But as of now, we probably shouldn't put too much stock into any of these newfangled numbers. It's cool to think that our Hulu streaming or our live-tweeting is going to impact a show's survival chances, and maybe one day it will. But that day won't come this season. This is a gradual process. Plus, the only reason we're seeing this data is that the networks want us to see it and—more importantly—to value it. Meaning, the networks are trying to convince skeptical advertisers that all this non-live viewing matters. One of the best ways to do that is to start flooding the market with press releases touting BIG INCREASES or HIGH IMPRESSION RATES ON TWITTER, with the hope that people like me will talk about it and you'll realize that your non-live activity makes a difference. Maybe that will pay off, but as of now, this is just data. It doesn't have much of an impact yet.

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