In Depth

Commercial Ratings Shuffle the Deck

Preliminary Results List Same Top Shows, Different Order

In the first official week for the commercial ratings that are shaking up the advertising world, the top 10 shows on broadcast were still the top 10 shows, but their order was scrambled.

Network officials and media are expecting bigger, more unpredictable changes once the figures for the new season’s shows are available, because digital video recorder use has been heavy during premiere week. The way those numbers fall is crucial, because billions of dollars in ad sales are based on the new ratings system.

C3 is the new metric being used this season. It refers to the ratings for average commercial minutes in live programming plus three days of DVR playback.

Currently it takes Nielsen three weeks from the time a show airs to release C3 ratings.

Thus, Nielsen still has not officially released any C3 ratings for the new fall shows.

The week of Aug. 27 marked the first time the C3 ratings became official. Previously they had been marked "for evaluation purposes only."

Nielsen gave some of the commercial ratings data from the week of Aug. 27 to TelevisionWeek last week. It is still deciding how to make that data available to the public and the press on a regular basis.

In that week, the top 10 shows in the live program rating among viewers 18 to 49, the measurement used for ad buying during the 2006-07 season, were the same using the new C3 measurement, which was the standard for the majority of this season’s buys.
But some of the shows switched order, and while some saw ratings decline by more than 7 percent, others rose by as much as 4 percent.
For the week of Aug. 27, CBS’ "Two and a Half Men" was the top show among adults 18 to 49 using both C3 and live ratings, but the C3 rating was more than 6 percent lower.

Viewership of the No. 2 show in live ratings, "CSI: Miami," dropped 7.1 percent using C3, making the show No. 5 on that list. Jumping up to No. 2 was "Big Brother," ranked third live. C3 ratings of "Big Brother" were up 3.7 percent.

Also increasing their ratings using C3 were two episodes of Fox’s "Family Guy."

One question suggested by the C3 data is how the new numbers will change the cost of buying commercials in shows.

The answer to that is not exactly straightforward.

Advertisers pushed for commercial ratings because they want to know how many people are watching their ads, as opposed to how many people watch a program. The potential difference between those figures was a big part of this spring’s upfront negotiations: Buyers and sellers expected the new ratings to be lower, but neither side wanted to bear the full cost of converting to the new metric by either cutting the price of commercials or raising rates in terms of the cost for reaching a thousand viewers, or CPM.

What likely will happen over the long term is that CPMs will increase for shows that consistently rank higher in the C3 ratings than they did using live program ratings, while shows that slide in the rankings using C3 ratings will see their CPMs drop.

Lower Expectations
In most cases, commercial ratings are expected to be lower than live program ratings, even with DVR playback factored in. But there will be some exceptions.

"There’s going to be a few shows where C3 is just as high, very few shows where it’s higher," said Steve Sternberg, executive VP of audience analysis at ad buyer Magna Global. Among those expected to do better are shows like "Family Guy" and "The Simpsons," because those programs skew younger, and those younger viewers are more likely to be DVR users.

But the experts said the late-summer ratings made available by Nielsen don’t shed much light on how commercial ratings will play out for the beginning of the fall season.

"The viewing patterns change, not only with the new season, but you have people going back to school, so you have fewer kids in the house," said Bruce Goerlich, executive VP of strategic resources at ZenithOptimedia. "The summer is so different that, quite frankly, we’ve been really focusing now on the new season. We will in a couple of weeks go back in and really focus on the summer, more for helping us to predict next summer than the new season."

With summer over and new shows making their debuts, DVRs are working overtime.

"There’s no question that people with DVRs are stockpiling the new shows and then watching them in a delayed way," said David Poltrack, executive VP for research and planning at CBS.

Viewers in a special panel managed by Nielsen for CBS were playing back the season premiere of "Heroes" and the pilot for CBS’ "The Big Bang Theory," which aired Sept. 24, over the following weekend.

"This year the panel has giving us the added advantage of being able to get a good reading on what’s going on in terms of playback and streaming," Mr. Poltrack said. "I would say that in the DVR homes there are a lot of shows that are being watched more in playback than live, and I think that’s what you’re going to see when the results come out in a couple of weeks."

Playback is so high that Mr. Poltrack doesn’t think it’s possible to project what the C3 numbers would be, because it’s hard to tell whether delayed viewers are watching commercials. In past years about 40 percent of commercials were watched during playback, but people may be skipping more because they’ve got so many premieres to sample.

"We may not know the real patterns until November, because of the baseball playoffs," Mr. Poltrack said.

If broadcast is difficult to predict, cable is just about impossible.

"We have no idea what that’s going to look like, because there was virtually no track to go by," Mr. Sternberg said. Nielsen only recently began measuring cable correctly, he said.

However, Mr. Sternberg said the problems with converting to a new measurement were worth the extra work it is causing the industry.

"For the first time ever, the broadcast networks and the cable networks are searching for ways to keep viewers tuned in to the commercials. They never cared about that before. They never had to. Now they have to," he said. "So regardless of what metric you use, there are going to be more people watching the commercials, and that’s going to benefit advertisers and it’s going to impact sales. And that’s the only thing that really matters as a bottom line."

But it won’t be long before the delay between the delivery of program ratings and commercial ratings will become an irritation.
"Clearly I don’t think the industry is going to want to wait weeks for the data," said ZenithOptimedia’s Mr. Goerlich. "There will have to be a change somehow."

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