More Fun With Numbers: What’s a Hit Show?

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September 13th, 2008

Warning: if you don’t love lots and lots of numbers, turn back now! You have been warned…

An astute observer pointed out that in my open letter to Dawn Ostroff I was critical of the CW for reaching a 10% share level in its target demographic of 18-34 year old women, but many shows that are deemed “hit shows” routinely only generate 10% share in the markets those shows go after.

For those who aren’t numbers obsessed “share” represents the percentage of people who were actually watching TV who watched a show. If we say a show had a 10.0/15 (household ratings/share) it means 10% of all households watched that show, and 15% of the people who were watching TV were tuned in. Similarly, if we say a show got 11% (or an 11 share) among 18-49 year old viewers, that means of all the 18-49 year olds who were watching television, 11% of them watched a particular show.

Though there certainly are some instances where shows that are considered “hit shows” do only generate 10% shares among their particular advertising target, there are some shows that perform much better. One thing I realized though is that I’m something of a scale-ist. I appreciate big honking scale, and I suppose of all the “ists” I could be, being a scale-ist isn’t so bad. It is possible that just by my scale-ist nature, I am being unfair to the CW. I suggested that if the CW was only going to target young women, it needed to reach more than 10% of them, perhaps double or as much as 20%. Commenter Holly noted that it seemed like that was a high bar to set. She may well be right and I am thinking about it.

We’ve had the luxury for the last four months or so of actually getting more data on a fairly regular basis. Not regularly enough to feel comfortable about producing some of it regularly here on our site, but it’s still good to have access to. My conversation with the aforementioned astute observer wound up getting me to dig through some of the numbers. After digging through a lot of numbers I wound up asking myself “what’s really a hit?”

I think it’s probably appropriate to take the Einstein view – it’s all relative. Unfortunately, unlike the universe which can always be held relative to the speed of light which is a constant, it’s not so easy with TV networks. In the end, it seems “what is a hit?” is relative to the network itself.

We can imagine, for example that if a show has over 7 million viewers regularly on TNT like The Closer, that it’s a hit. Or if it has over four or five million viewers routinely on USA Network (In Plain Sight, Law & Order: CI, Burn Notice, Monk, and of course WWE Raw) it’s a hit. If AMC’s Mad Men routinely had over two million viewers it would likely be deemed a hit and if any show these days on HBO or Showtime routinely produced over two million viewers in an initial airing, that too would likely be considered a hit.

For purposes of this discussion I’m sticking with scripted shows and ignoring reality shows. I think we’d all agree, whether we like it or not, that American Idol and Dancing With the Stars have been hits. Sunday Night Football is a hit for NBC and Monday Night Football is a hit for ESPN.

We do know that The Office is a Hit for NBC, that House is a hit for fox, that CSI is a hit for CBS and that Grey’s Anatomy is a hit for ABC. And with access to more demographic data we do know for certain that relatively speaking Grey’s Anatomy is the biggest hit of them all.

Please, please understand that the following is not a commentary on the quality of shows, but a look at the ratings. My favorite show of all time is probably still HBO’s The Wire, and that routinely got less than two million viewers. So please don’t take offense! I enjoy The Office, too, which for the typically fourth place peacocks at NBC is definitely a hit, largely on the basis that it has a large concentration of 18-49 year old viewers (typically around 2/3rds of its total viewers) even if total viewership does not have a huge scale. But there is no way to consider The Office the same type of hit that Grey’s Anatomy is. So we probably need some designations like “Hit Shows” and “Mega-hit shows”. By that standard, Grey’s, though down off its highs, is still a megahit.

Looking at some demographic information for its finale last May, Grey’s had 19% of all people who were watching TV, 19% of all 18-49 year olds and a whopping 25% share of all 18-34 year old females watching TV. Sure, that still means 75% of all 18-34 year old females who were watching TV then were watching something else, but 25% share in this day and age, and especially in that demographic is phenomenal. By contrast, CW’s 90210 is getting about 10% of females 18-34. Is it fair to compare Grey’s on ABC to 90210 on CW? No, I don’t think it is. And moreover, I’m rethinking my 20% share target in CW for this demo because I don’t believe it’s possible to achieve those kind of numbers unless you’re generating big numbers all the way around.

For some contrast to the Grey’s numbers, House’s season finale (which was so gut-wrenchingly harsh I don’t believe my friend Bill Gorman could bring himself to fully watch in one sitting, even though House is one of his favorite shows) had 15% of the overall television viewing audience, 14% of the 18-49 viewing audience, and 16% of women 18-34 who were watching TV. These are great numbers just about by any standard, except the Grey’s Anatomy standard. So shortly, when we see the annual Ad Age estimates for 30 second advertising spot costs for broadcast primetime in the 2008-2009 season, when you see that advertising on Grey’s costs quite a bit more than advertising on House, it’s the numbers above that are the reasons why.

Now let’s take a look at CBS’ CSI and the numbers for its finale last May. Going against the season finale of The Office and the penultimate episode of Grey’s Anatomy, CSI had 17% of the overall television viewing audience (and actually eclipsed Grey’s that week which only had 16%). But it underperformed Grey’s in all the “youthful” age/gender demos. CSI had a very healthy and respectable 12% of all 18-49 year olds, but only 7% of the overall 18-34 year olds (the penultimate Grey’s had a 16% share among the aggregate 18-34 demo) and among females 18-34, CSI had an 8% share. The penultimate Grey’s had 22% of the 18-34 year old female viewing population). So while CSI is definitely a hit for CBS, it does illustrate the aging problem – so much so that…

…let’s take a look at the numbers for the season finale of The Office, remembering that it went head-to-head with the finale of CSI and the season’s penultimate episode of Grey’s Anatomy. The Office had but 8% of the total viewing population tuned in (to CSI’s 17% and Grey’s 16%), and among 18-49 year olds The Office had 10% of the viewers, but even with only around only half the total viewers of CSI, among 18-34 year olds, The Office almost doubled CSI 13% to 7%! Among 18-34 year old females, the margin of victory was not as high, but it still beat CSI 12% to 8%. And that’s why The Office, even with about half the total scale of CSI, is a hit.

Any discussion of age and gender demographics requires some disclaiming. While I am an scale-ist, I am not an age-ist and I want to point out that I don’t think that advertisers and the television networks are age-ist for paying premiums for younger viewers. It’s not about ageism, it’s about the way markets work. The availability of viewers 50+ is high. They are much, much easier to reach because they are watching TV much more than 18-34 year olds and 18-49 year olds. It is the market forces of availability that put premiums on the younger viewers. There are fewer of them to be had, so they cost more. That’s just the way markets work.

I hope all the numbers didn’t make your head pop off, but I find it interesting/important to do the relative comparisons as they are more enlightening than merely looking at the aggregate numbers. It does definitely have me rethinking my targets for the CW and I will try to get over being such a scale-ist, because reasonably, whatever you or I may think about the CW’s numbers for Gossip Girl, 90210 and America’s Next Top Model, I’m guessing that regardless of what we think, if they can hold on to even 80% of the numbers they generated the last couple of weeks once they are up against completely new shows across the board in a couple of weeks, the CW will be delighted with the results.

If they can maintain even close to a 10% share of 18-34 year old females with so few total viewers overall (most of the viewers are 18-34 year old females) I think they’ll be happy with the numbers and not care a whit about my love of scale. I know some of you are thinking, “Come on! Once the season starts for everyone else and those shows are going up against new episodes, the 18-34 share will drop to a five!” We’ll soon see, and if it does happen like that I’ll probably write another long open letter to Ms. Ostroff…

Finally, one thing to consider is that our belief mostly has been that while we’re certain the networks do look at how they compare to shows on other networks, when it comes to making renew or cancel decisions, and what Bill G. will use to calculate the “Renew or Cancel Index” the networks mostly compare themselves against themselves and how other shows on their own networks perform.

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