When is a ratings drop not a ratings drop?
Just ask the folks at MTV who are now making the same argument about “The Osbournes” that E! Entertainment recently made for “The Anna Nicole Show,” namely that overall household ratings might be down but the “core-demo” ratings, which are what most of the show’s advertisers really care about, remain strong.
In “The Osbournes” second season, the household viewing level is down more than 50 percent from the media-frenzy-fueled height of the first season, though a precipitous drop-off from its water-cooler peak is to be expected.
MTV’s executives claim that the household falloff doesn’t really matter “until they’re blue in the face,” and they have not yet been understood by most commentators and the press, an exasperated network spokesman said, declining to make either research or ad-sales executives available for this story.
As it happens, the MTV argument is not a particularly difficult one to follow:
Overall household numbers are down in the second season thus far because this year “Osbournes” is less of a water-cooler find. It is darker and seems less like innocent fun, partly because of the blizzard of gossip and information about the family that even the casual viewer brings to the new season.
Last year, the Osbournes were an unexpected and curiously charming Bizarro World version of the traditional TV sitcom family, bleeps and all, that captured the nation’s fancy; this year, the show has “serious” themes-the price of sudden fame, the onslaught of serious illness. And the tub-thumping media frenzy of the first season has moved on to other subjects and shows-to “Joe Millionaire” and “American Idol,” For example. But then again, that’s always been the aftermath of a media frenzy.
Neither MTV nor “Osbournes” is about overall household ratings, the network argues, and neither should be judged by them; advertisers come to MTV, and a host of other cable networks, looking only for a particular demographic slice of the mass audience pie. The show’s core demo, like the network’s, is people 12 to 34. And those demo ratings remain just fine, thank you very much, averaging almost 4.6 for the first eight episodes of the second season, compared with 5.3 for the first eight episodes of the first season. In fact, the trend in the demo is up, the MTV argument goes, with last week’s episode scoring a 4.8 in the 12 to 34 demo, up from a 4.0 the previous week.
“Osbournes” also remains MTV’s most popular show with the 12 to 34 demo, and that means that demo-minded “Osbournes” advertisers such as Apple, Disney Pictures, Sony PlayStation, Taco Bell, Universal Pictures and Virgin Mobile remain generally happy too. “The Osbournes” continues to meet all of its ratings guarantees for the core demo as well as for the 18 to 34 and 18 to 49 demos, according to the network. In short, the show is nowhere near make-good territory.
Of course, those pesky overall-viewer numbers are down, from almost 8 million viewers at the height of the first-season media frenzy to 6.6 million viewers for the November 2002 second-season premiere to just 3.5 million viewers for the Jan. 14 episode, with an uptick to 3.8 million viewers last week.
The rival view
But MTV’s competitors don’t necessarily buy the network’s rosy view of the demo performance either, pointing out that in a direct comparison of the first eight episodes of the two seasons the 12 to 34 demo-rating falloff is 14 percent and the falloff for the 18 to 49 demo is 13 percent, while the household rating is off 15 percent, and that, they say, doesn’t bode well for the future of the show. “They’re off in demos as much as they are in households,” said a senior executive at one of MTV’s cable competitors, who said the trend for the season is down.
“The networks spin the numbers how it better suits them,” noted veteran agency buyer Bob Flood, executive VP, Optimedia International. “When CBS didn’t have a strong demographic story to tell, they always used to focus just on the household numbers. Now, with the growth of their 18 to 49 numbers, they have begun to focus on that.”
Mr. Flood, whose agency has no clients specifically in “Osbournes,” although some Optimedia clients may “rotate through” the show, accepts the validity of the general MTV argument: “Certainly, MTV’s core viewing audience is the 12 to 34 audience,” he said. “If they are maintaining that core constituency, they certainly have a right to focus on that, because most advertisers aren’t buying on a household basis. They’re really targeting specific demographics. … I wouldn’t necessarily be concerned [about] the falloff in the ancillary audiences.”
A lot has happened to the Osbournes themselves since the reality-sitcom’s premiere March 2002: Sharon Osbournes’ colon cancer diagnosis and the deal with Telepictures for her own syndicated talk show; the heavily hyped appearances at the annual White House correspondents’ dinner and on the recent low-rated American Music Awards show; and their Super Bowl Pepsi commercial-which was at or near the top of all postgame evaluations of Advertiser Bowl commercial likeability and memorability.
So what the bleep is going on with “Osbournes”? Are they overexposed? Almost certainly-just check out the gossip columns and the magazine covers. Are they to blame for the record low ratings for the most recent American Music Awards, which they hosted? Possibly. But the bottom line is their appeal to the key demo can’t be denied.
MTV is expected to air the final 10 episodes of the second season this spring and summer.