Since I write for TV by the Numbers, every once in a while, I like to talk about the numbers.
On Monday I shared with you how networks can impact the ratings for programming that runs in late night, and how ratings for sporting events that end late on the East Coast can be impacted by where the last network commercial pod is placed.
Here are two tales of how the labeling of a show can affect its rating.
If an episode for a regular series runs outside of its regularly scheduled time period, that episode can be labeled as a “special,” and it will not be included in the season average for the series. That’s according to Nielsen. Networks also use this practice for episodes that air on holidays.
One year during my tenure at NBC, “Roseanne” and “The Cosby Show” were in a close race to determine which show would win the ratings crown. During that season, ABC ran a Sunday episode of “Roseanne,” which was labeled a special. According to the rules, we did not include it in the season average for the show. Problem was ABC did. As a result, we had “Roseanne” winning the season and ABC had “Cosby” winning the season.
Of course, I got the call from Bill Cosby asking why his own network had him No. 2 for the season. It was not a pleasant conversation, but I stuck to my position. After all, research was supposed to be objective.
Here’s another trick, which USA Network does every week with “Monday Night Raw.” You can design breaks in a show so as to have Nielsen rate a show as two separate episodes (or three, in “Raw’s” case). You can sell each hour separately, or you can just get more than one show in the top 10 by doing this. Cable news channels do it sometimes too, and so does NBC with its “Football Night in America” highlight show on Sundays.
This option resulted in one of the worst mornings of my career.
“American Idol” premiered in the summer of 2002. Back then ads were sold based on the average minute rating for the show. I was head of research and scheduling at FOX, and unbeknownst to me, our head of unscripted ordered our head of ratings research to break the two-hour finale into two separate hours. This was to get the highest rating for the second hour of the show, which had the results in it. I remember being at the Kodak Theater for the finale and around the hour break noticing that the opening credits reappeared in the show. My Spidey senses told me something was up.
The problem with splitting “Idol” into two separate hours was that our sales group guaranteed a rating for the show and did not sell it as separate hours. Advertisers in the first hour could claim FOX underdelivered on the guaranteed rating and we needed to make good on the audience deficiency. Advertisers in the second hour got a bigger audience than they expected, so they were happy.
The morning after the “Idol” finale, I came to work feeling excited about the future of FOX. We had a hit on our hands, and if we handled it right (we did), we were going to benefit for years to come.
I was at the office by 7 a.m., as was my usual routine, when Jon Nesvig, our head of sales and one of the most well-respected people in the business, called me. I assumed he was calling to congratulate me, but no. He immediately went into a tirade about splitting “Idol” into two parts, and he wanted to know how I let that happen. I told him I had no idea and our head of unscripted had taken it upon himself to do it. He threatened to call my bosses and demand that they fire him.
I calmed Jon down and told him I would handle it. The last thing I wanted was for my bosses to have their moment blown. It would have gotten ugly. I called our head of unscripted and filled him in and told him Nesvig was after his head. I then called our ratings research head and told him in no uncertain terms never to take an order from anyone regarding labeling our shows without running it by me first.
I kept everything from spiraling out of control, and to this day, never told my bosses what had happened. If they happen to read this, I hope they realize I did what needed to be done.
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