Television has evolved in infinite ways since Philo T. Farnsworth came up with this marvelous invention in 1927.
We’ve moved from black and white to color to high def, from Uncle Miltie to Johnny to Conan, from Lucy to Roseanne to Oprah. Where we haven’t progressed all that much, however, is figuring out who’s watching all this.
Ratings and viewer totals have been under the auspices of Nielsen Media Research since the 1940s. Pre-selected families were asked to keep a diary and write down what they were watching. That was fine, but in today’s 500-channel universe, the ratings system is constantly trying to catch up with technology — so far with mixed results.
Early on, people didn’t always accurately report what they were watching. Eventually, the handwritten diaries gave way to electronic set-top boxes that automatically alerted Nielsen as to which shows were being watched. But even was flawed.
How many times have you had the TV on in the living room but were in the kitchen, not paying attention? If a tree falls in the forest but no one is there, does it make a sound? If Bree and Lynette are squabbling and no one is watching, should it improve the ratings for “Desperate Housewives”?
A new dilemma
Now comes the latest dilemma, and Nielsen is trying to keep up with the times. The recent surge in DVRs (digital video recorders, including TiVo) have led to “time-shifting.” That is, “Lost” may air on Wednesdays, but a growing percentage of the audience is watching it the next day, or even on the weekend.
So, the question that needs to be asked is clear: Should a program be punished if viewership is solid, even though people aren’t watching when the network originally airs the broadcast?
In addition to its standard next-day ratings from the night before, Nielsen recently deployed “live +7” numbers, which means that it registers not only the numbers from the night a show is originally broadcast, but for the following seven days, too.
The results are intriguing. What we’re learning is that when popular shows meet in identical time slots — think Thursdays, when favorites “Grey’s Anatomy,” “CSI” and “The Office” square off — all of them can be considered winners when the live +7 viewership is taken into consideration.
“Grey’s” will continue to be the top show in the all-important 18-49 ad demographic, while “CSI” remains the most-watched show. But in this scenario, the show that gains the most when those post-Thursday viewers are accounted for is “The Office,” which sees a 17 percent increase in viewers throughout the week, in addition to those who originally watched on Thursday night. “Heroes” (16 percent increase) and “House” (14 percent increase) are also grateful for the new Nielsen tabulations.
Also happy to see those live +7 numbers is The CW, which has a hard time keeping up with the big boys, but have for years said its shows are being watched — just not in the original time slots. Now they have proof.
Reality shows, on the other hand, don’t fare as well in the live +7 world. Programs such as “American Idol” require immediate post-episode discussion and analysis, and it’s rare that a viewer will watch an episode a few days later, not knowing what happened. Even if they try to create a media blackout for themselves, an “Idol” fan will find it nearly impossible to remain oblivious of a results show when a contestant has been voted off.
While Nielsen should be given credit for trying to incorporate and register all these new viewers who watch shows on their DVRs, it’s capturing only a small fraction of those who aren’t watching TV in traditional ways. There's been a huge upswing in viewership on the Internet, which is no surprise, considering teens and 20-somethings are increasingly attached to computers and portable media devices. Each network replays its programming — full episodes, no less — on their own Web sites 24/7. So it's only a matter of time before millions will be watching shows online — if we're not already there.
Network executives who must decide the fate of shows that were never ratings giants certainly understand the value of those who watch their programs online only. So while “Friday Night Lights,” for example, might not have ever been close to a hit on the network, it certainly could be a favorite across the Internet. Not only are full episodes available on network sites, YouTube includes dozens of scenes, excerpts and homemade montages that draw viewers. Adding to that is the just-launched Hulu.com, an NBC Universal and News Corp’s video distribution site. (MSNBC is a joint venture between Microsoft and NBC Universal.)
Compensation for online viewership is one of the major issues that TV writers are currently striking over, as writers want a share of revenue from episodes that are viewed online and elsewhere. Still, while networks are selling episodes via iTunes and sell ads to show as part of streamed episodes (not to mention the continued fight about who should receive the lion’s share of download money), the Nielsen system is currently responsible for most revenue. It might be antiquated in many ways, but it’s the mechanism networks presently use to make their millions, as it determines what rates they set for televised advertisements.
So for now, we’ll take Nielsen's word for it as to which shows are hits and which are busts. In the meantime, network schedule-makers shouldn’t lose too much sleep over devising a prime-time lineup to entice viewership.
We’ll figure out when to watch on our own.
Stuart Levine is a managing editor at Variety. He can be reached at email@example.com.