In my last Q&A session today I saw a number of topics come up from multiple people that indicated confusion on some key areas of how ratings work and impact decision-making. I created this FAQ to address some of those - and will keep adding as other topics arise.
"When Will We Hear If Show X Will Be Renewed?"
This is not information I can provide on a public forum like Twitter. Renewal/cancellation negotiations and timing for announcements can be very complicated with many variables. If someone at USA were to publicly state a timeline for when the public would hear news about a show's renewal (or lack of) that could impact the negotiations by implying something is happening soon (or not) which may not be the case. Additionally, since one never truly knows how long a negotiation will take it is somewhat pointless to discuss any sort of timeline. Even if I did know a show renewal was all but done there are many strategic reasons for holding the announcement for a specific time - either to give to a specific reporter as an exclusive or to make news during an event like TCA or Upfront or to bundle with other pieces of news in a press release. So I can tweet about a show renewal ONLY after the contracts are official and we have released the news publicly.
"When Will Show X Premiere?"
I often get asked when a show will premiere. This is news I often cannot discuss more than a few months before the actual premiere because 1) we have not locked in a date yet as we do not have the full competitive scheduling pictue 2) we want to time the news to give to a specific reporter as an exclusive 3) we want to hold for a specific event (see list above in renewal section 4) we do not want our competitors to know our moves too early. For these reasons I can only discuss a premiere date when it is official (sometimes our press team does allow me to break the news!)
If you are not able to follow my feed closely to see the news my best suggestion on how to find out if we have announced a show's premiere date is to simply google it - once we send out the official release news sites will pick it up so you will be able to find the info.
"Do I Count When It Comes To TV Ratings?" - The average person does not directly count into TV ratings. Only homes in the Nielsen sample (there are about 20 thousand overall) contribute directly to the official TV ratings. The sample has homes with DVRs, homes without, and all combinations of other types of homes. These homes are designed to represent the U.S. census.
However any person CAN help a show succeed by spreading passion / word of mouth about it. The more "buzz" that can be generated the more likely that a person in the sample may hear about a program and decide to try it out. Speak often and loudly - you could make an impact.
"Why Can't My DVR Count Too AKA Can't TV Ratings Just Come From Cable Boxes"? No - there are HUGE OBSTACLES to collecting TV viewing information from cable / Tivo boxes. 1) Privacy laws get in the way 2) boxes cannot talk to each other in many cases because of different software 3) cable companies don't necessarily want to give access to all that info they collect even if they could 4) there are many TV viewers without DVRs. Ratings need to come from an objective third party that monitors and controls the sample so that it represents the whole country
"How Come On-Line Viewing Doesn't Matter" - The plain truth is TV ratings are NOT really designed to measure the popularity of programs - they are designed to tell advertisers how many people watch their commercials. In the past the technology did not exist to capture that fine level of detail so Nielsen could only report how many people watched a program. But back then there were no DVRs (only VCRs at some point) so advertisers could assume most people watched ads. However today, along with the different ways people can watch TV, Nielsen has the ability to measure viewing just to ads in a program. Since most ads online ARE NOT the same as on-air they cannot be combined. Advertisers want to know how many people watched their ads - not a show. There is a mechanism in place to blend online and on-demand ratings IF the same exact ads air on those platforms and on-air but many networks do not do that. Most on-line formats are designed to showcase fewer ads.
"If A Show Has Good Ratings It Will Get Renewed, Won't It?"- In many cases yes but not in all. The older a show gets the more expensive it gets as salaries, production costs, license fees and other expenses shoot up - in some cases WAY up. So a show can still draw in a decent audience but while those levels could have covered costs in early seasons they are dwarfed by costs in later seasons. The average viewer will never see data on show costs - that is all internal info that networks of course know which allows them to create profit models. So if your favorite show is cancelled even though you think it has good ratings you can probably assume it is too expensive to continue.
"I Read A Lot About Live+Same Ratings - Does That Tell Me All I Need to Know If A Show is Doing Well?" - Live+Same Day ratings (ratings for a show watched live or on DVR up to 3am the next morning) are many times a clear indicator of success and do indeed establish a baseline However they do not tell the whole story - in fact they have a very short shelf life - about two weeks. When we look back on a show's performance in TV research at USA we tend to not look at LS ratings but Live+7 and/or C3 as those are the numbers that allows us to measure our two goals 1) to be the #1 cable network and 2) to make the most money we can from ad revenue.
Regarding #1: When ranking networks on a quarterly or annual basis it is Live+7 ratings (viewing up to 7 days after air) that are the industry-accepted standard because that allows for all the viewing currently tracked. Since some shows and time periods can get A LOT of time-shifting, Live+7 ratings can be MUCH higher.
Regarding #2: A key part of our job in research is to create estimates for all shows and those are based on C3 ratings which report on how many people watched commercials up to 3 days after they air. When a Live+Same rating comes in and is lower than expected it is still very possible for the C3 rating to be higher than expected. C3 and Live+7 ratings are rarely reported by the press (they come in 2-3 weeks after air) so there are occasions (more than a few in my experience) when Live+Same ratings do not paint the whole picture.
"Why is 18-49 so Important?" - This is based on the industry belief, right or wrong, that this demographic has strong buying power but can also be influenced to switch brands.
"Can A Petition Help Save A Show?" It has happened but it is rare. Most shows are cancelled because ratings are too low and/or costs are too high. A petition does not change those facts. It can indicate that there is a groundswell of passion which the ratings are not capturing and that there is hope for the future. However a network cannot really count on a piece of paper with a lot of names when deciding to risk millions of dollars on another season - that is why most petitions go nowhere.
"Why Do You Split The Season For Some Shows?" - There are numerous reasons we split our shows into 2 seasons during a 12 month period. 1) Often, if we were to start a show and air 16 episodes without a break we would run into competition that is quite scary. This is particularly true in the Summer - 16 eps would bring us straight into the Fall season. 2) Ad Sales loves (and needs) to have originals throughout the year. They cannot cram all thire clients who want to be in our originals into 1 or 2 quarters - providing originals throughout the year maximizes revenue. 3) Since one of our goals is to be #1 in as many quarters as possible during a year we need the strength of originals to achieve that goals so they need to be spread apart 4) The production teams on shows often need and appreciate a break while filming - airing 16 straight can cause production to fall behind. 5) We tend to zig when other networks are zagging - meaning we strategically think about time slots that are open for one of our shows to perform well - those slots are not always contiguous. 6) If a show airs straight through it will likely be off the air for almost a year which while not always avoidable (Psych this year faced that hurdle- and overcame it) it is not something we want to happen to all of our shows. 7) We have found that in most occasions ratings (LS, L7 and or C3 - not always all three) have not been negatively impacted by the split season.