Flash Forward needs more than half of Lost’s viewer base to succeed

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August 8th, 2009

Flash Forward

I saw where David Goyer, the man who wrote The Dark Knight and along with Brannon Braga brings Flash Forward (based on a book by Robert J. Sawyer) to ABC said something like “We’d be thrilled with half the rabid fan base of Lost,” at the TCA press tour presentation.

I expect Flash Forward will premiere pretty well in the Thursday at 8pm tim eslot.  Personally, I’m looking forward to Flash Forward more than any other hour long scripted drama debuting in the fall, but I have not seen the pilot yet.

Flash Forward doesn’t need to open as strong as The Dark Knight did at the box office, and if half the rabid fan base of Lost watches at the same time, that might work out, but it’ll need more than half the viewers Lost actually got last year. Half of season one and season two viewers might work out, but having only half the viewers Lost had by season five would put Flash Forward on very shaky ratings ground.

Marc Guggenheim, who was an executive producer with Eli Stone is the executive producer of Flash Forward.  Understandably, Marc’s experience with Eli Stone left him somewhat jaded when it comes to any obsession over ratings.  I don’t agree with Marc’s take on ratings entirely, but I think he offers  some meaningful perspectives.  I’ve seen him on the record about not loving the industry’s obsession with ratings, to the point where people obsess over preliminary overnight ratings that don’t even take DVR viewing into account!

"Network television is in the throes of a major evolution, or devolution, or whatever you want to call it. But it's a crisis, really. And the crisis rises from the fact that people have choices in how they consume their product,” said  Guggenheim in an interview with Newsarama.


"With serialized shows, there are a lot of people who are waiting for the DVD box set to come out," Guggenheim said. "Imagine if comic book companies didn't pay attention to how many trades they were publishing, but rather only paid attention to month-to-month sales," Guggenheim said. "In fact, I'll go you one better. Not even month-to-month sales. They're only paying attention to how Amazing Spider-Man sold on the Wednesday it came out as opposed to the following Thursday, Friday or Saturday, right? So that's the problem. You have a lot of people who are either 'waiting for the trade' or picking up their comic book on Thursday, Friday or Saturday."


"But there's another factor here, which is perception," Guggenheim pointed out. "Nielsen is the company that has the monopoly, and I use that in the most pejorative sense, has a monopoly on reporting ratings. Nielsen comes out with preliminary ratings the very next morning. They're called overnights for that reason. That's the first data point that you get. And that is purely live viewing on the first night – no DVRs, no iTunes, no internet. Then over the course of the new two to three weeks, additional data comes in, and it includes internet and it includes DVRs. But here's the problem. Those overnights have set the tone. Those overnights have created the perception."

Hmmmm.  I suppose Marc must conclude TV by the Numbers is part of the problem, not part of the solution.

There may be something to it in the sense that we perpetuate the reality (rather than the myth) that advertising is bought and sold based on viewing and while we don’t see the C+3 (commercial ratings, as opposed to program ratings,  live + plus 3 days worth of DVR viewing) the L+SD preliminary overnight numbers have been an excellent proxy in most cases of the Live+7 (week’s worth of DVR program ratings).

I could learn a ton from Mr. Guggenheim, and there’s probably very little I can teach him. But there’s this: DVR ratings are included in the preliminary overnight numbers – and should be much more indicative of the Live+7 number for Flash Forward than they were with Eli Stone. Generally speaking 8pm, when Flash Forward will air, and 9pm shows have a much higher percentage of the week’s DVR viewing occur on the same night than shows that run at 10pm like Eli Stone did.

Almost all Nielsen numbers that are regularly cited include at least the same night DVR viewing.  The preliminary overnight numbers, as well as the final numbers that come out later in the day and are used in the weekly reporting  all include DVR viewing up to 3am after the show aired.  The only time we even ever bother to look at the purely live numbers at all is when calculating total DVR viewing.

Let’s take a look at Lost’s numbers for season five.  They include a rerun or two, and reruns are DVRd much less, but it still makes for a good indicator.   Lost averaged 7.941M live viewers, 9.525M live+SD viewers and 11.279M live+7 viewers.  That means on average, including a rerun or two that drag the average down, Lost averaged 3.338M DVR viewers per airing.  BUT,  1.584M of those watched on DVR the same night the show aired.

Factoring out the rerun or two, typically half of Lost’s weekly DVR viewing occurred the same night the show aired and would have been included both in the preliminary overnight numbers, and the final weekly numbers.

Those percentages looked much, much different for Eli Stone.  These numbers only include airings between 9/22/08 and 5/20/2009, so the final episodes of Eli Stone that aired in the summer are not included here.   Eli  Stone averaged 5.883M live viewers, 6.177M live+SD viewers, and 7.088M live+7 viewers.   That’s 1.205M weekly DVR viewers on average with only 294,000 of them or 24.4 percent watching the same night.  Things change all the time, but it’s reasonable to conclude that the % of DVR viewing for Flash Forward that is counted the night the show airs should track much more closely with Lost than with Eli Stone.

The numbers that really matter the most for Lost last season are its adults 18-49 ratings.  Of all the ABC shows, Lost experienced a bigger boost on a percentage basis due to DVR viewing than any of them.  Some of that is because it aired very few in-slot repeats, vs. say, Grey’s Anatomy, which aired more in-slot reruns during the season and are counted in the season totals I’m looking at.  And even with the repeats, Grey’s had the better overall 18-49 numbers for the season with Live, L+SD and L+7.

Lost averaged a 3.3 adults 18-49 rating with live viewers, when same day DVR viewing was factored in that shot up to a 4.2 rating, and when a full week’s worth of DVR viewing was counted in, it went up to a 5.2 rating.  That’s a huge increase over live viewing – 55 percent, but compared to the live+SD numbers the increase was 22 percent.

Some shows with lower ratings like Dollhouse might do better on iTunes, Hulu, etc than others.  And DVD sales do matter.  We don’t, for example, know how well Dollhouse sold yet during its first week (we’ll see those numbers Monday night or Tuesday) but we do have enough data already to figure it probably didn’t sell anywhere near as well as True Blood, which sold over 500,000 copies in its first week.

Lost also gets a ton of online viewing, and though its DVDs are released late in the year in early December, has huge DVD sales, even on an annual level .   Last year it sold over $30 million worth of DVDs in just the last few weeks of 2008.

One thing I’d like Mr. Guggenheim to consider is that it’s not the ratings themselves, regardless of when they’re released, or that they’re released by a company with a monopoly on ratings  that create the perceptions.  A show’s ratings don’t occur in a vacuum. What creates the perception is relative performance when compared to other shows!

We know how Lost did in the past.  We know how Eli Stone did when it went head-to-head with CSI: NY.   More importantly now for Marc, we’ll know how Flash Forward compares to Survivor, and Bones and Parks & Recreation (and ok, The Vampire Diaries).  We’ll know how it compares to Grey’s Anatomy and how it’s doing relative to the rest of ABC’s schedule.

We’ll know that pretty much after the first episode, and while we won’t know online viewing, or the full DVR viewing or DVD potential yet, we’ll have a pretty good view of how the show is doing.  And we won’t need any of that other stuff to form a very valid perception.

We don’t need any new data  to know that Flash Forward needs to do better than Ugly Betty.   It won’t do that if it’s only finding half of Lost’s season five viewing audience.  Ugly Betty had a seasonal average of a 2.25 adults 18-49 rating for  live+SD viewing (the 2.25 are 18-49 ratings points out to hundredths, not millions of viewers).  If it doesn’t do better than that,  ABC isn’t going to be thrilled.

Again, I think Flash Foward will come out of the gate strong. But I haven’t seen the pilot yet, so I can’t offer any opinions on the show. ABC is promoting the hell out of it though, so hopefully it premieres with better than a 3.0 rating with adults 18-49.  Especially with serialized shows it’s necessary to come out of the gate strong these days and then hang on to as many viewers as possible.

Sure, that’s just a perception, but the old adage of perception is reality didn’t get to be a cliché for nothing.  If Flash Forward was airing Fridays, I’d claim all bets are off. Obviously, my perception was not reality when it came to Dollhouse!  But Flash Forward is a well-promoted show airing on Thursdays,  the most important night of the week advertising-wise and not on Fridays, where magic can still happen even when the ratings aren’t magical.

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