Does HD Help Ratings?

Mar 22, 2007  •  Post A Comment

ABC’s “Lost” is in HD and its ratings are going down. NBC’s “Heroes” is in HD and its ratings are flying high. The CW’s “America’s Next Top Model” has yet to upgrade to HD, yet its ratings keep getting better.
So what does all this mean?
HD’s effect on ratings is still tough to decipher, experts say.
Though networks are spending a fortune to upgrade productions to HD, and early-adopting viewers are enamored with the format, so far there’s very little evidence that being in HD impacts ratings.
“‘Lost’ is in a downward [ratings] spiral this year and it’s in HD,” said Pete Putman, president of Roam consulting and author of the HDTVExpert Web site. “‘ER’ was once NBC’s highest-rated program, but it hasn’t cracked the top 20 in over a year even though it went HD in 2004.”
For HDTV owners, this may seem counterintuitive. Studies have shown HDTV viewers give priority to viewing shows in HD and actively seek out content in the format.
A Magid Associates survey found about four out of 10 HD viewers start their viewing by searching their HD channels.
But Rob Yarin, VP of Magid, said HD browsing habits don’t necessarily result in long-term viewership.
“Viewers watch a show presumably because they are interested in it, then HD enhances the experience,” Mr. Yarin said. “There may be a few exceptions, such as Discovery programs like ‘Sunrise Earth,’ which are specifically geared for HD, and perhaps sports. But the growing HD browsing habit has not driven significant growth in time spent with HD programming.”
One problem is that HD penetration is still too limited to move the Nielsen needle. Less than 15 percent of households have a subscription HD service or use an over-the-air antenna for HD programming.
As another example of HD’s lack of viewership power, Mr. Putman pointed to veteran game shows “Jeopardy” and “Wheel of Fortune,” which last fall for the first time launched their new seasons in high-definition, with considerable fanfare.
But since its HD launch, the ratings for “Jeopardy” are unchanged, while “Wheel” is up 1 percent.
A “Wheel” and “Jeopardy” spokeswoman countered that the shows are a poor test of HD impact, since the HD versions are available in only 36 percent of households. Also, most syndicated shows are down this year; therefore, the game shows could have maintained their averages or, in the case of “Wheel,” grown slightly due to the addition of HD.
Which brings up another point: If a show’s ratings rise or fall, who’s to say it’s because it’s in HD (or not)?
Looking at prime-time reality series, Fox’s “American Idol” and ABC’s “Dancing With the Stars” received HD upgrades in the middle of their runs last year, and their ratings increased the following season. By contrast, NBC’s “The Apprentice” and CBS’s “Survivor” and “The Amazing Race” have stayed in standard definition and lose viewers every season.
Though the ratings loss by “Race,” “Survivor” and “Apprentice” is almost entirely due to their aging formats, keeping the scenic “Survivor” and “Race” in SD when most of primetime is now in HD, one could argue, has contributed to the loss.
“Once somebody sees something in HD, it is hard to put it down,” said David Bott, co-founder of AVS Forum. “Even more so when it is something real, such as sports or shows on PBS and Discovery … and reality shows. I think something like ‘Amazing Race’ would benefit from being in HD.”


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