NBC’s “The Office” delivered a 5.1-its highest ratings ever-last Thursday among adults 18 to 49, a bump the network credits in large part to the show’s popularity as an iPod download.
In fact, the series is NBC’s top-performing video podcast available on Apple’s iTunes, where it has been available since Dec. 6.
Such a connection between podcast success and broadcast ratings success is particularly significant because the NBC data is among the first available evidence of what network executives have been gambling on when striking their new media deals-that the new video platforms are additive because they provide more entry points into a show for consumers.
In the case of “The Office,” the series was one of 12 NBC Universal shows that have been available since NBC struck a deal with with Apple in early December. (NBC added “Saturday Night Live” to the lineup last week.) In that short time period, “The Office” has accounted for one-third of all the NBCU downloads on iTunes, clearly the lion’s share of NBCU content available through the site.
Then on Jan. 5, the prime-time series moved to Thursday nights and delivered a 4.5 in adults 18 to 49, then its highest rating ever for a regular slotted telecast, which was bested last week with a 5.1 in the demo. Also on Jan. 5, it served up its best retention ever of its lead-in, “My Name Is Earl,” capturing 87 percent of that show’s audience, up from its previous 71 percent average. On Jan. 12 it retained 86 percent of its lead-in. And the ratings bump can’t be attributed to a change in lineup, since “The Office” has been paired with “My Name Is Earl” all along.
Parsing out the credit for a ratings increase has always been tricky because myriad factors are often at play. However, NBC is confident that the iPod exposure contributed to the rise.
At the time the NBC deal was inked on Dec. 6, Apple had sold 3 million video downloads. Just last week at San Francisco’s annual Macintosh conference MacWorld, Apple CEO Steve Jobs an-nounced that Apple had sold 8 million videos. As a high-profile content pro-vider, NBC is likely driving a large percentage of those additional downloads.
The iTunes offering is bringing new audiences to the show that would not otherwise have watched, said Frederick Huntsberry, president of NBCU Television Distribution. “Consumers have choices, and we are not reaching all consumers with one technology,” he said.
ITunes is one way to bring fresh eyeballs to the network, he said, in particular the younger demo that uses video iPods.
“We are offering content and reaching viewers for the first time. These are audiences using iTunes to manage their music,” Mr. Huntsberry said. “Now being able to download TV shows is a new technology they are playing with.”
That young-adult target is tougher to reach with traditional media, said Kaan Yigit, an analyst with Solutions Research Group in Toronto. “They are either out on the town with friends or in the office working late, versus at home glued to the TV set,” he said. “The power of the on-demand new media platforms to be additive is more potent among members of the younger demographics.”
Some experts urge caution in drawing a link between iTunes downloads and a show’s ratings. ITunes distribution as a whole is simply not large enough to translate into a significant viewer increase on broadcast TV, said Adi Kishore, analyst with Yankee Group. “We are not seeing the kind of volume yet on itunes that would show up in a ratings bump,” he said.
Yet ABC has also seen a ratings increase for its iTunes shows. To date since their debut on iTunes in October, both “Lost” and “Desperate Housewives” are up versus the same period last year.
“Lost,” ABC’s most popular show in terms of downloads, has seen its total audience rise 14 percent and ratings for adults 18 to 49 are up 28 percent. “Desperate Housewives'” total audience is up 7 percent and 18 to 49 ratings are up 3 percent. ITunes downloads for both shows also rose in the last few weeks.
That growth and the knowledge that iTunes distribution possibly grew and certainly did not cannibalize ratings gave the ABC Disney Television Group the confidence to add another round of iTunes programs last week that includes content from ABC Family, Disney Channel, SoapNet, ABC Sports and ESPN, said Albert Cheng, executive VP of digital media for the Disney ABC Television Group.
“There are so many different factors that go into driving success and increases in a show. From a statistical standpoint, [iTunes] is probably one of many factors,” he said. The marketing buzz, too, from offering shows on iTunes can drive awareness and, in turn, ratings.
The iTunes halo effect could have far-reaching consequences. While syndication of “The Office” is some time off, if iTunes continues to deliver new audiences into the show’s network run and keep the ratings up, NBC may be in a better position to take “The Office” into syndication once it has the requisite number of episodes under its belt.
“Repeatability of content has been proven in the past on TV. Look at ‘Seinfeld.’ If it’s good, people will watch it,” Mr. Huntsberry said.
iPod Calls Viewers Into ‘Office’