One week’s worth of commercial ratings left ABC ahead of the pack in terms of the numbers that determine how much ad revenue networks can take in.
Among adults 18 to 49, ABC averaged a 3.49 C3 rating—a measurement that calculates the viewership for the average commercial minute during a program whether it’s seen live or played back on digital video recorders within three days of air.
The commercial rating was designed to give advertisers a better idea of how many people are watching their ads than program ratings do. It also gives networks credit for the growing number of people who watch shows on a delayed basis—as long as they don’t fast-forward through commercial breaks.
Based on a single week’s numbers, Mike Shaw, president for sales at ABC, said there were few trends to be tracked.
Viewing so far this season has been atypical, Mr. Shaw said, with normal patterns being disrupted by natural disasters like Hurricane Gustav, the credit crisis and the presidential debates.
“I don’t believe the average person at 9 o’clock is just sitting back and saying, ‘Entertain me.’ It doesn’t feel like that,” Mr. Shaw said.
But he said that while DVR penetration has grown from about 19% a year ago to more than 27%, the newest users don’t seem to do as much recording or playing back.
“The impact for that last group isn’t nearly as much as it was for the early adopters,” Mr. Shaw said.
NBC finished second in C3 during premiere week—Sept. 22—with a 3.14, followed by CBS with a 2.83 and Fox with a 2.65.
Using program ratings for viewers watching live or replaying shows the same day they air—the metric most reported the day after shows appear—the rankings were the same. ABC averaged a 3.8 rating, NBC snared a 3.3, CBS drew a 3.1 and Fox was at 3.0.
Alan Wurtzel, president of research for NBC Universal, said that while the network was pleased with its C3 numbers, it doesn’t use C3 as a way of evaluating its performance.
“To me this is really a metric that is used by the sales guys to price and do transactions on,” Mr. Wurtzel said.
The overnight national ratings, consisting of live ratings and same-day DVR playback, provide a daily barometer, but, “In terms of really understanding how a program is working, you’ve really got to look at the live-plus-seven, because that’s telling you all of the viewing,” he said. Live-plus-seven provides live viewership for a program, plus all of the playback viewing over the next seven days.
It takes Nielsen several weeks to generate C3 numbers, and it doesn’t release them the way it does program ratings. Last week, the numbers became public because ABC put out a press release about its win using the metric.
Because C3 is used by advertisers to determine how much they pay for spots, the networks have been working harder to find ways to keep viewers tuned in during breaks rather than switch channels or fast-forward if they’re using DVRs.
But Mr. Wurtzel said the network has found it has very little control over DVR use.
Its show “The Office” is heavily recorded. But Mr. Wurtzel notes that’s largely because of its time period, opposite both CBS’ “CSI” and ABC’s “Grey’s Anatomy.”
“If that would move out of that time period, it might not be as DVR’d,” he said.
And while the network is trying to decrease fast-forwarding during breaks, “What we have learned is that there are very few things that you can do to get people to watch commercials,” Mr. Wurtzel said.
One thing that works is “live” commercials, which the network has done on Conan O’Brien’s late-night show. Those live ads tend to retain more viewers than traditional spots.
A second way to increase commercial ratings is to move the commercial pod into a more watched segment of the show.
The network found that most of the other clever things it’s tried to do have not affected commercial viewership. The good news is that those efforts have increased the effectiveness of the commercials, which is beneficial to sponsors who want more bang for their marketing dollar.
“That’s a positive result, but it’s not the same thing as saying the commercial rating went up,” Mr. Wurtzel said. “I think we’ve learned, but we’ve learned that some of these things are hard to do.”
CBS Executive VP for Research and Planning David Poltrack also said it is early to be making judgments about how shows are performing with just one week of C3 data available.
“Obviously the younger the skew of the show, the greater the percentage of audience that will be in playback, because younger people watch more playback than the older people,” Mr. Poltrack said. “Generally you see shows like “Gossip Girl” and “90210” [on The CW] have a very high ratio of playback to live.”
The CW is a joint venture between CBS and Warner Bros.
Mr. Poltrack also noted that during premiere week, CBS didn’t air its most watched and most played-back show, “CSI.” It also hadn’t yet launched its Friday night lineup. In the next two weeks, CBS was No. 1 among adults 18 to 49 in program ratings, he said.
Mr. Poltrack added that while premiere week was one of CBS’ weakest weeks, nine of its series were up from a year ago when comparing this year’s C3 numbers with last year’s C3 numbers, more than any other network.
“We’re very pleased that our C3 numbers are up. We don’t have any audience deficiencies, we’re making our guarantees [to advertisers], and that was in a week that we were operating with one hand tied behind our back,” Mr. Poltrack said.
Using either measure, ABC’s “Grey’s Anatomy” was the week’s top-rated show; it had a 6.97 C3 rating.
With C3, NBC’s “Sunday Night Football” beat out ABC’s “Desperate Housewives” for the No. 2 spot. “SNF” finished third using program ratings. Its improvement explains why advertisers are flocking to sports events, which viewers tend to watch live, making it less likely they’ll fast-forward through commercial breaks.
The rest of the top 10 using C3 were “CSI: Miami” (ranked 6th using program ratings), “Dancing With the Stars” (tied for 4th), “Two and a Half Men” (tied for 4th), “House” (7th), “Heroes” (8th), “The OT” (tied for 9th) and “Sunday Night NFL Pre-Kickoff Show” (tied for 14th).