Online, the entire network race is upside down.
Season to date among the biggest broadcast networks, Fox is in the lead, followed by CBS, ABC and NBC.
But go online and the race becomes a different story: A new serialized show with soft ratings like CBS’s “Jericho” generates more traffic than most of its higher-rated competitors.
From September through February, ABC.com and NBC.com are in a dead heat for first place, both averaging about 9 million unique visits a month, according to Nielsen//NetRatings. They’re followed by a distant CBS.com (5.6 million) and Fox.com (3.7 million).
The CW, which launched in September and did not have a Nielsen//NetRatings-rated site until October, averages about 1 million visitors.
The ebb and flow of the networks’ Web traffic month-to-month tends to coincide with television ratings.
But sites’ baseline popularity and overall rank compared to the competition tends to be driven by a few key shows such as NBC’s “Heroes” and “The Office”; ABC’s “Lost” and “Desperate Housewives”; and CBS’s “Jericho.”
More often than not the online traffic-drivers are serialized shows validating the form which networks are shying away from after many high-concept titles with continuing, complex storylines failed to find audiences last fall.
Serialized programs inherently contain cliffhangers, giving viewers an incentive to go online to find more information after an episode concludes. This also offers networks ways to expand the show’s mysteries online. During four weeks in March the traffic race as usual followed the TV ratings pattern, but with ABC firmly passing NBC due to ABC’s “Dancing With the Stars” return and NBC’s “Heroes” being on hiatus. (Final March figures are not yet available.)
Fox was still fourth, despite its traffic more than doubling since December due to “American Idol.” One major caveat: Nielsen//NetRatings includes Fox.com and its stand-alone “Idol” site americanidol.com, but not Fox’s MySpace page, where users can stream full episodes of the network’s shows.
“With a lot of the metrics you see for the Internet it’s difficult to match up properties,” said Chris Carlisle, executive VP of marketing for Fox.
An Imperfect System
Nielsen//NetRatings measurement system is universally considered imperfect but, as Vivi Zigler, executive VP of NBC digital entertainment and new media, tactfully put it, “it’s what we have.” As networks spread more content to portals such as MySpace and Yahoo, Nielsen//NetRatings will become even more challenged to reflect the reality of a network brand’s popularity.
“Our internal numbers are never reflected in Nielsen//NetRatings,” said Rick Haskins, executive VP of marketing and brand strategy at The CW, echoing a sentiment shared by others.
Brand popularity and promotion is a big factor in Internet traffic, experts said.
Will Richmond, president of Broadband Directions, said his research on iTunes sales also put ABC and NBC ahead of the pack in terms of episode downloads.
“Some networks do more to promote their Web sites than others,” he said. “Some networks have more shows that appeal to demos that are heavier online users.”
Though all the networks have free streaming episodes, Kaan Yigit, analyst for Solutions Research Group, said ABC and NBC have drawn more viewers due to being more aggressive about promoting online content.
“ABC and NBC arguably have had more stuff available earlier than the others,” he said. “Fox has been slow and protective [of their content]. [For CBS,], shows like “CSI” work extremely well on TV but do not deliver as much extra on the Web.”
Daisy Whitney contributed to this report.