Walls of text here, and I know only about 4 people are a fan of that. So you four enjoy it. For the rest of you, the short version is if relatively few watch The Beautiful Life, the finger will get pointed in Nielsen's direction...
Personal Awareness biases
I need to disclaim that as a result of doing this blog, I’m very aware of lots of television shows. If not for this blog, that would not be the case. I was even aware of Megan Wants a Millionaire before one of the show’s contestants was charged with murder.
But as a result of starting this blog, I was able, at least in the early days to get an idea of how awareness works with me. Sadly for the networks, not very well, really.
On-air promotion is the best promotion, but…
It seems universally accepted that on-air promotion is the best promotion. There are all kinds of advertising studies that come to that conclusion, and it makes sense. I accept it too. It’s the best way to reach the most people.
Still, for me, recommendations from friends are far more influential in getting things on my radar and a lot of times on-air promotion zooms right past me as if I’m wearing some sort of deflection shield.
I wound up watching many shows as a result of comments from fans on this blog. I got exposed to CW’s Supernatural as a result of this blog and started watching it after several “you have to watch it” comments. I got the first season DVD and thought it was great. I’ve since caught up and watched every episode. Now, it doesn’t surprise me that I had no awareness of Supernatural. Unless there was some kind of local sporting event on the local CW affiliate, I never watched the CW.
If on-air promotion works so well, how come I wasn't very aware of House?
While lacking awareness of Supernatural makes complete sense to me, I can point to a case that doesn’t: House.
By the time we started this blog in September 2007, House was just beginning its fourth season. By then I was looking at the ratings numbers every day, and looking at how things performed on a relative basis weekly. I started watching House mostly as a “wisdom of the crowds” thing. After about a month of doing the fall 2007 ratings reports, I was thinking, “what the hell is this show that is a demo beast with adults 18-34 and adults 18-49?” I had no idea what the show was.
And that’s kind of strange because unlike the CW, I watch a bit of FOX. Every fall I watch FOX religiously at least three hours a week, and often six or more between NFL, MLB playoffs and the World Series. I’m sure there was a lot of on-air promotion for House. But for whatever reason, I didn’t notice it.
The wisdom of the crowds thing worked out, and I’ve now watched every episode of House and especially enjoyed the first two seasons.
Awareness of this fall’s new shows according to Nielsen:
Nikki Finke posted some Nielsen awareness info showing which new fall shows had the most awareness and which the least. She disclaimed that spinoffs of shows tend to have higher awareness and that some shows haven’t really begun their marketing pushes. And I’ll go one further, without actually seeing the awareness index scores (which Nikki didn’t post) there’s no way to gauge the gap between the shows with the highest awareness and the shows with the least awareness.
So it could be the gap between the best and worst is very small. Also, without the actual data, it could be that worst performing show on NBC had more awareness than the best performing show on The CW.
With all those disclaimers in mind, here’s what Ms. Finke posted:
Flash Forward (strong intent-to-view sentiment among those aware of this show)
NCIS: Los Angeles (also strong intent to view)
The Good Wife
Worst: Three Rivers (doesn't premiere until October)
The Cleveland Show (very strong intent to view)
SNL Weekend Update (good intent-to-view)
Vampire Diaries (strong intent to view)
Worst: The Beautiful Life
Shows people talk about (on the Internet) versus shows people actually watch
Which brings us to The Beautiful Life, a drama about models that will air after America’s Next Top Model. Seemingly a good fit. Interestingly, it has the least awareness of any CW show, but remember, based on the way the data is presented we have no real idea of the gap between that and, Melrose Place or Vampire Diaries. Again, due to this blog my awareness of even The Beautiful Life is very high. In fact, I’m pretty sure without this blog I’d have absolutely no idea who Mischa Barton is.
The CW is on record that it wants shows with buzz. Shows people talk, text, and yes, even tweet about. And with Ashton Kutcher, the show's producer and his wife having huge presences on Twitter, if you want show’s people talk, text and yes, even tweet about, picking up The Beautiful Life seems like it makes sense.
But finding value in buzz, even Twitter, may have more measuring challenges than even Nielsen has. Kutcher might have over 3 million people following him, but it’s hard to determine real reach based on that. A lot of those followers are spammers, and people who signed up for Twitter, played with it a day and never came back. On the flip side, though I don’t follow Kutcher’s twitter stream, because people I follow do and occasionally will re-tweet something from his Twitter stream, even though I don’t follow him I wind up seeing some of his stuff.
But it's not clear that even a high awareness of Ashton on Twitter will correlate to a high awareness of The Beautiful Life.
Advertising still pays the bills
Our experience is that buzz doesn’t translate to ratings at all. Dawn Ostroff will say that Nielsen doesn’t do a particularly good job at measuring the CW viewer because the CW viewer is younger and watches shows in a variety of different ways.
I agree that younger viewers are more prone to watching things online or downloading from iTunes. But while I’d agree that the overnight and weekly Nielsen ratings do not give one a great idea of how many people are really watching a show, I think they do give the advertisers a good idea of how many people will wind up seeing their ads. I call BS on complaining about Nielsen because all of the data from iTunes and streaming from the CW’s web site is available to the CW.
My guess is that Nielsen does a pretty good job measuring Gossip Girl’s DVR viewing and it's true that a high percentage of CW shows are viewed on DVR. What’s not clear is whether that’s really a good thing. Advertisers don’t want to pay for ads people fast-forward through and we can hardly blame them. Show’s like The Beautiful Life in theory have a lot of product placement opportunity, but in theory, so did shows like the canceled Privileged.
Kvetch about Nielsen all you want to. A lot of the kvetching is fair. But Nielsen isn’t responsible for the way TV shows get paid for. Advertising is still the primary source of revenue for broadcast shows. When tons of people are downloading on iTunes or tons of people were watching on web sites, and the networks can figure out how to make real money on those online ads, the on-air advertising won’t matter as much. The keyword there is “when”. “When” is not now.
For the last two years our experiences are:
- Not a TON of people download shows from iTunes. Last season you could get to #1 on iTunes and stay there a while with only around 25,000 downloads
- Not a ton of people watch each episode via Web streaming. Some show’s like LOST do get around a million people streaming an episode – that still works out to be less than 10% of LOST’s overall viewing. It’s not nothing, but with fewer commercials and the networks not yet selling the commercials that do run in streams at premiums that are high enough to offset there being future commercials….
- TV is still what pays the bills.
Talk is cheap, advertising is expensive
Despite this, unless 2009-2010 is some kind of breakout year in terms of the TV viewing numbers, I think we can count on hearing more from Dawn Ostroff (and probably Ashton and Demi, too) about how Nielsen doesn’t measure total viewing well. But that’s about as worthwhile as me telling you what I had for lunch on Twitter. It just doesn’t matter.
Talk is cheap, advertising is expensive. The overnight and weekly Nielsen numbers don’t give you a true accounting of total viewing. But they do give you a very good idea of how much money a show can make from advertising. Someday, if and when the masses are regularly watching shows via online streaming, things will change. At least, that is, if the networks can figure out how to monetize viewing of online streams as well as they monetize TV viewing.
Two things you can be sure of:
1.) Those things won’t be figured out in the 2009-2010 season and that’s not Nielsen’s fault
2.) Networks (and not just CW) will constantly bring up that Nielsen doesn’t measure total viewing anyway