In September 1987 the TV industry switched over to People Meters and, as the 1988 upfront was approaching, Networks and Buyers were at odds over how to account for lower usage levels in estimating ratings for the new season. The upfront was stalled. I was VP of Audience Research at the time and I proposed a formula for breaking the stalemate. It involved estimating TV usage for the 1988-89 season by using pre-people meter data from the prior three years. Who knows if it made any sense but everyone bought into it and we moved the upfront.
That same upfront there was a crises in selling Saturday Morning kids. Back in the 80's Saturday Morning was a viable programming block and NBC with SMURFS (90 minutes), ALVIN AND THE CHIPMUNKS, Mr. T, PUNKY BREWSTER (animated) and SAVED BY THE BELL, was the leader in the Day-part. Not surprisingly, with the advent of people meters, the 2-11 ratings on Saturday Morning collapsed. We all knew that kids were not going to push the buttons without adult supervision. I came up with the idea of selling the more passive measure, Household with Children 2-11, as a substitute for the 2-11 rating making the case that when a child turned on the set the household meter was running even if the kid did not punch in. I went around to the agencies with our Daytime sales group and we were able to make that the standard for the first upfront of the new era of people meters.
Early in my scheduling career at NBC I helped lead the charge to change the discussion among Television writers from Households to Adults 18-49. We made the argument that 18-49's was the currency of the business. It was the metric on which most buys were made and we believed that every other form of entertainment was evaluated by some form of economic transaction and the same should be true for television. Sure Persons 2+ or, back in the 90's, households measure overall popularity but there needed to be some recognition that economic success was measured by the number of 18-49 eyeballs who come to your shows and that should be reported. It took a while but eventually the 18-49 demo became part of the conversation.
I came to FOX in 2000 and, in addition to scheduling the network, I had Research reporting to me. As the impact of DVR, VOD and streaming of shows was being captured by Nielsen in the Live+3 and Live+7 ratings, I sat down with television writers on more than one occasion to try to give them perspective on what this explosion of data meant. Simply put: as the viewer becomes untethered from the date/time/network matrix it takes longer to capture all the consumption of a program and Nielsen is not yet prepared to report it all to the industry.One thing I NEVER told the TV writers was to ignore the Fast Nationals (L+SD ratings) which we get around 8AM out here in La La Land (11AM in the real world). They have their jobs to do and they are not going to not report ratings if they are made available to them by a broadcast network. I felt our job was to give them honest context on all these metrics so that they could write about them as intelligently as possible.
The Live+SD ratings tell a story. They don't tell the COMPLETE story but they do give us a pretty good read on the relative success of television shows. I truly believe that the networks have done a pretty good job of educating the Television press on the new realities of the business and I see more and more stories about L+3 and L+7 in the trades. For the general public they just want to know what the popular shows are and the relative position of shows doesn't change all that much from the L+SD to the L+7. As I have said on several occasions, what delayed viewing tells us is that the rich get richer and the poor get a little less poor.
Before I retired from the biz, internally I was asked my opinion about stopping the reporting of L+SD ratings. I always gave the same answer: Unless you get all the networks to agree to stop the reporting I would not do it. Those who want the numbers will get them and you allow others to tell your story for you. Why would the other networks stop releasing them when they have a good story to tell? Why would the press or the consumers wait five days for a Live+3 rating which will not significantly change the relative strength of shows? Everyone knows that there is more viewing to shows than is reported in the first day of viewing. We would just look silly and petty unless this was an industry position.
I started off telling you some tales of my adventures in trying to change perception of TV ratings in the industry. What all the stories have in common is that, whether at NBC or at FOX, I was able to try to affect change from a position of strength. We were the #1 network so we had the ability to take a leadership position. FOX is the #4 network right now and I believe that is true regardless of the measure that you use. I have faith in the current leadership. They have only been there a year but I believe they are smart, adult and more populist in their taste than recent regimes. No matter what they say publicly I have to believe that senior management is looking at the L+SD numbers every morning. There's nothing wrong with waking up, seeing a number and bragging about it. I don't for the life of me understand why they want to take that joy away from themselves. I woke up this morning. I could go to my pal Joe Adalian's Twitter feed @TVMoJoe or click on TV By the Numbers and there are the L+SD ratings FOR ALL THE NETWORKS. The dialogue has already changed. What's the point?
There's an epilogue which I will address soon. This is a business of failure. If we are claiming that more shows are successful because of the added viewership over time are we changing the structure of the business to accommodate this? I'll talk about that and other issues in the new reality of Television.