Another Open Letter to the CW's Dawn Ostroff

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Written By

September 12th, 2008

Dear Ms. Ostroff,

I don't think your plan to save the CW network is working. I'm not being snarky. That's my take based on the numbers. Even the numbers for the 18-34 and 12-34 year old female sector that CW targets.

Women 18-34 years old make up less than 12% of the total viewing population. I don't question focusing on the sector because although I do not know exactly what kind of advertising premiums that demographic generates, I have enough anecdotal data to be comfortable that there are certainly significant premiums. But based on the numbers, I can't imagine the CW is attracting enough of the women in that age range to really make it work well.

Sure, it's enough to win against ABC, CBS, Fox and NBC in that demo a few nights a week, but some of those victories are marginal, and then, of course there's cable, where even among 18-34 year old women, ABC Family bested 90210, and when it came to 12-34 year old females, it absolutely crushed the CW.

Maybe I'm just cranky because I've had to start jabbing my cat with a needle to get his blood sugar down. I'm definitely a little bit cranky about having to move residences and more than a little wistful at making the decision to move out of the 94123 - basically San Francisco's version of 90210, only without a good public high school in the zip code (or anywhere else in the city, for that matter). But I don't believe my point of view here is coming from angst - it's coming from the numbers.

Claiming victory with young women against the other English language broadcast networks is a victory, but it seems like a hollow one. 90210 could claim that victory with but 9% of the 18-34 year old women who were watching TV. It seems like for your strategy to succeed victory isn't enough, and that you'd effectively have to double your share among young women who are actually watching television. You're going after a small slice of the pie to begin with, but then only getting a very small slice of that pie.

90210, Gossip Girl and America's Next Top Model reached 9%, 10% and 11% of the female 18-34 population respectively this week. In all cases pretty much 90% of women 18-34 who were actually watching TV, watched something else. There's obviously a lot of opportunity in that sector that is being missed if 90% of them are not watching your shows.

Did you really blame some of this on Nielsen? You can't have it both ways. I understand the desire to want to have your cake and eat it too, I feel that way myself about things sometimes. But you can't use Nielsen to claim victory with young women among broadcast networks and then actually say in public that Nielsen is obviously not counting everybody because look at all the buzz Gossip Girl is generating! Realistically the Gossip Girl viewing Nielsen doesn't count or could possibly undercount boils down to four categories:

  • Illegal downloads/streaming (surely you don't expect Nielsen to measure this!)
  • iTunes, etc. for fee downloads
  • streaming from CW's website
  • Young women on college campuses

I don't think iTunes, Amazon Unbox, etc. really counts because there's no advertising. That said, you know exactly how many downloads a week/month/year that amounts to. Similarly, you know exactly how much viewing goes on via CW's website. So if you want to count that information, publish it, or please be quite about it. It is the lack of any crowing about this data that makes us suspect that it isn't generally significant and that if it was, you'd publish it regularly. I understand it may be harder to measure the demographic information with such viewing (and this is an industry wide problem, not just one for the CW) but for now, if you'll give us total number of streams and total number of minutes, we'll publish it regularly.

The college campus issue does seem legitimate. It seems not only possible, but quite likely that Nielsen does undercount this currently. Nielsen seems to be working on it, but to the degree that it's an issue, it is one that impacts all networks. Sure, it may impact the CW disproportionately because of your targets, but realistically, it's not like it's possible that 5 million viewers are being missed. I doubt it's even 500,000.

Though that is pure speculation, that you're missing out on 90% of the people in your target sector who Nielsen did measure isn't speculative. And this note is to our readers more than you: yes, I know the numbers grow when DVR viewing is factored in, and for Gossip Girl in 90210 I imagine the live plus seven day DVR results will produce meaningful increases. Unfortunately, we do not get any demographic data with our DVR numbers so it's not possible for us to report on how much those numbers change your performance in your target demos unless you tell us (which we hope you will!).

We also hope you will begin reporting number of streams and number of minutes from CW's web site and the iTunes/download data too, thus removing any speculation about how meaningful that is to viewing.

My sense is that your current lineup, despite the press releases (which we do love) isn't producing the desired results. Especially since you're specifically targeting young women, it seems like you ought to have closer to a 20% share with your shows than the 10% share you have. This is important because by the nature of your attempt, you're pretty much alienating most people outside of young women.

You may often be able to claim victory against your broadcast brethren, but I don't see how you could possibly claim these shows hits without reaching 20% of people in your target demos who were actually watching TV. The current lineup doesn't seem on a path to achieve that kind of success.

Despite the press releases, I view the numbers, especially for 90210 and ANTM as very disappointing. If we start to see continued week over week growth in your target sectors, I will gladly eat as much crow as you suggest. But what will you do if those numbers stay the same, or worse, decrease when there is more original programming available soon from your broadcast competition?


Robert Seidman

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