Whether Showtime’s subscription numbers are up or down and whether its highly touted “Fat Actress” premiere broke records or not depends on whom you ask.
Subscriber estimates from Showtime and Nielsen Media Research have become so dramatically at odds in the past year that drawing accurate conclusions about the performance of Showtime properties is increasingly problematic.
Though the premium network, which does not sell commercial time, has repeatedly stated that its business model does not depend on high ratings, ratings are still a valuable gauge of the success of its programming. Moreover, for most everybody else in the television industry, the conflicting numbers are the latest glaring example of just how confusing television research can be.
Witness the premiere of “Fat Actress.” The premium network heralded the Kirstie Alley comedy as its best premiere since the 2000 debut of “Queer as Folk”-boasting a 4.1 household rating in Showtime’s universe and beating 2004’s “The L Word” (3.6). Yet the national household ratings, which are derived from the entire TV viewing universe, showed the premieres of “The L Word” (.66) and even the now-defunct “Dead Like Me” (.67) beating “Fat Actress” (.62).
All the figures were accurate, yet seemingly irreconcilable: “Actress” both beat the “L Word” by 14 percent and lost by 6.5 percent.
“This doesn’t make any sense,” said one top researcher contacted by TelevisionWeek. The researcher’s sentiment was echoed by another such executive when presented with the data.
Turns out the difference is due to Showtime’s shrinking Nielsen universe estimate. According to Nielsen Media Research, the premium net has lost about 16 percent of its households in the past year-down from 19 million in January 2004 to 16 million in March 2005.
The shrinking universe means “Fat Actress” can be seen by a higher percentage of Showtime viewers than “The L Word,” according to the coverage, or Showtime’s universe, rating while still being watched by fewer people overall, according to the nationals.
But not so fast.
While Nielsen universe estimates are commonly used by advertisers and others to determine a network’s penetration, Showtime claims its subscribers (a total bundled with The Movie Channel and Flix) have increased 14 percent since fourth quarter 2003.
“The Nielsen numbers are projections based on a sample; our numbers are actual numbers that are reported to us by our [cable operator] clients,” Showtime spokesperson Joan Ziff said. “Showtime has grown.”
A Nielsen spokesperson disputed Showtime’s claim.
“I can’t speak to their subscription numbers and how they come up with those, but I can confirm that the Showtime universe … is correct,” the spokesperson said.
Both the Nielsen spokesperson and the Showtime spokesperson claimed to have the backing of Showtime’s own research department.
Though differences are to be expected between the two measurement methods, experts said it was unusual for the Nielsen and network estimates to be so entirely at odds-one painting a picture of sharp success, the other showing dramatic decline.
Weighing in on the dispute, Kagan Research gave the edge to Showtime. Kagan estimated Showtime subscribers have grown 8 percent since 2003-from 12.4 million to 13.4 million.
For “Fat Actress,” however, the verdict is grim no matter which set of numbers are used.
Despite the high-profile debut and barrage of publicity, viewership for the series has plummeted 68 percent from its premiere on March 7 (.62 national household rating, according to Nielsen) to its third episode, which aired March 21 (.20).