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Rush to ratings judgment is a dangerous game

September 27, 2012|By Joe Flint
  • Fox's "Glee" saw a big jump in ratings from viewers who watched on DVRs.
Fox's "Glee" saw a big jump in ratings from viewers who… (Fox )

I am a late adopter to technology. I still don't have an iPhone. I only recently got a Kindle but still prefer hardcover books. I use maps vs. a GPS. Heck, I work for a newspaper.

But when it comes to how I watch television, more often I am using a digital video recorder and video on demand. Don't worry, this is not one of those "Wow, I discovered something new and must alert the world to it" columns. Both technologies have been around for years.

This is, however, a column about the quick judgments that are made on how a show performed, based on the most preliminary of ratings information. On Wednesday, when I wasn't atoning for my many sins, I watched Fox's "New Girl" and ABC's "Modern Family," both of which I had recorded on my DVR. I also watched an episode of "Revolution" via video on demand. The difference between watching something on DVR vs. VOD, if you don't know, is that with VOD you can't fast-forward past the advertisements.

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If I, the latest of late adopters, am doing this, I can only imagine how many who are more tech-savvy are watching TV on their own schedules and not in real time.

For example, the season premiere of Fox's "Glee" jumped 40% in adults 18-49 when the ratings factored in the number of viewers who recorded the show and then watched within three days of its airing. "Glee" is not an anomaly. Fox executives have noticed that more consumers are using their DVRs this fall compared to last fall.

It takes up to a week for the ratings service Nielsen to provide data on viewers who recorded a show and watched within three days, and a whole two weeks to measure those who watched something seven days after recording. Factoring in VOD viewing as well as numbers from online sites such as Hulu also does not happen overnight.

But we live in an age of snap judgments. Every morning, Nielsen issues a "fast nationals" ratings report, which is a projection of the previous night's numbers. Then later in the day, the official numbers are released. Even within those two reports there are sometimes big discrepancies. The networks pounce on the early numbers and do their best to spin them. The media, eager for news, then rush out stories and make pronouncements on Twitter and elsewhere about what's working and what's not.

The problem is that there is a ripple effect. If the media declares a show is a failure or a disappointment, based on early numbers that do not factor in all the other platforms and ways to consume content, the programs become tainted in the eyes of the audience.

I know what you're thinking. Really, a few tweets and blog posts about ratings will have that big an impact?

It can. Ratings used to be very inside baseball. Trade publications would write about them every day, but consumer press and pop-culture shows such as "Entertainment Tonight" only did stories about the numbers if they were part of a broader trend story.

That is no longer the case. The bar has been lowered on what qualifies as big news, particularly when everyone has a website that needs to be filled with content. Ratings are something to feed the beast.

This is not to suggest that early ratings should be ignored. Those numbers can certainly be a good indicator of whether a show has potential, is starting to show its age or will be dead on arrival, and are perfectly legitimate to report. I'm not going to tell you that DVR numbers and VOD viewers could provide a big lift for Fox's new drama "Mob Doctor." When a show is that uniformly rejected, no platform will save it.

That said, most shows are not hits or flops right out of the box. TV programs need time to build an audience. In the days of three networks, time was plentiful. Today, with scores of channels competing against each other, the hooks are out fast.

The good news, though, is that as DVR and VOD use rises and as networks put more of their shows online, there is a greater chance for viewers to find shows and embrace them. "Mad Men" and "Breaking Bad" had great seasons in large part because of people watching old episodes on Netflix and elsewhere and then tuning in to AMC when new episodes were available.

Not only do the networks have to embrace all the different ways people can view shows and wait for all the ratings before passing judgment, the media needs to take that into account, too, and recognize they may do a disservice by just focusing on the early numbers.


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Follow Joe Flint on Twitter @JBFlint.

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