Monday, November 23, 2015

FUN WITH RATINGS PART 1

Last Friday FOX made a "bold" announcement that they were no longer going to publish or acknowledge Live+Same Day ratings. I received some requests (which I turned down) to comment on this. You see I have a bit of experience in the ratings game and have been involved in some issues somewhat analogous to this.

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.


   

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

The Book of Life - Part 12

I'm going to make this quick. Wicked City...I ordered the deli platter but I can't get myself to pay a shiva call. This show was pretty much an abomination from the start and a classic case of network cable envy. Yesterday I wrote about SUPERGIRL and CBS' attempts to break out of its wheelhouse. ABC has had a lot of success recently, and historically, with family comedies (their secret sauce is smart kids by the way) and female-appeal soaps. Why they would put on such a misogynist piece of crap as Wicked City is beyond comprehension to me. Well it sort of isn't.

There is a lot about erosion in network television that is driven by forces beyond the ability of network execs to stop. That doesn't mean that they are not accountable for some of the erosion and networks who know who they are, and understand that they are broadcasters, have a better chance of succeeding. When they want to be what they are not they fail. ABC you're smarter than this. Stick to your knitting.

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

The Book of Life - Part 11

Time to enter SUPERGIRL into The Book of Life. To review here are the possible entries:

BUY THE DELI PLATTER AND PAY A SHIVA CALL (stick a fork in it, it's done)
WILL CELEBRATE THEIR B'NAI MITZVAH (will get to 13 on the air)
SET A PLACE AT THE SEDER TABLE (should finish full the season)
SEE YOU AT NEXT YEAR'S KOL NIDRE SERVICE (there's a second season)

 Let's start here. CBS is a very smart broadcast network....the smartest of the "Big 5" in fact. They continue to believe in the Big Tent approach to programming so, in addition to being in the hunt for 18-49's (in part because of the decline in that demo among NBC, ABC and FOX) they cast the widest net and manage to get everyone. They have a formula for success in terms of their programming:
Variations on proceedurals
Colonized hits in CSI: and NCIS:
Multi-cam comedies that adhere to the situation comedy structure as opposed to the dramadies, warmadies, sadadies and comamas that are often passed off as comedy today.
Smart, well produced reality competition shows 
60 Minutes 
Football in the Fall

Here's the thing about CBS, whenever they try to move away from what works on their network their audience generally bitch slaps them right back to their sweet spots. By the way, several of those noble attempts were really good, they just weren't what the CBS viewer is looking for.

CBS is smart. They have used the summer to expand on what their audience generally consumes by offering fantasy/science fiction series and, in the tradition of CBS, sticking with them for at least a second summer.

This fall, in a continuing attempt to expand on their offerings, CBS premiered LIFE IN PIECES  and SUPERGIRL. I set a place for LIFE IN PIECES at the Sedar table and I still think there's a chance we will see it at next year'a Kol Nidre service.

Although it has declined from its inflated Big Bang leadin for its premiere, and dropped several tenths from its second telecast I'm going to be bullish on SUPERGIRL and expect to SEE IT AT NEXT YEAR'S KOL NIDRE SERVICE. SUPERGIRL is going head to head with an improved GOTHAM (yeah scheduling still matters to some) so I would expect to see it somewhere else next season paired up with a compatible action adventure show. CBS often moves shows in their second season (primarily because they're all sort of the same) so keeping it makes more sense that launching a new show. Also, given the CBC/CW connection I would not be surprised to see some synergistic games going on over the year.

Here's the thing though, the greatest obstacle to SUPERGIRL'S renewal is itself. I have watched all three episodes. Jeb Bush is right, Melissa Benoist is a very appealing/likable lead but the show is over the top silly and juvenile and not in a good way. It's very CW...not that there's anything wrong with that.






Monday, November 2, 2015

AND ON THE NINTH DAY JACK RESTED


This story's gonna start in a weird place...COSTCO...about three years ago...I was doing my usual Sunday run through the store when there was a display for the first six seasons of 24 on DVD. I stopped in my tracks. Couldn't move for a few minutes and actually tears came to my eyes...............I really am blessed...first and foremost always for my family...but I have also had an opportunity over three decades to, in a very small way, help shape, influence, kibitz, whatever culture.

When I came across the 24 display it hit me how fragile these shows are, how one decision along the way can make the difference between a cultural phenomenon and yet another show on the television scrap heap. How rare it really is in this fakakta business for something truly unique and special to come along; and what an enormous responsibility it is for the producers, the studio and the network to nurture and protect these rare gems Yesterday FOX announced that this May, 24 will be ending its 8 year run. As someone who was there from the beginning I thought I would share some moments from my small role in all this.

24 was the last drama ordered to pilot in our 2001 drama development. After I read the pilot script I emailed David Nevins, our top developer at the time, to tell him how excited I was about making this and of course he, along with most of us on the 4th floor at FOX, concurred...but you know....the food chain...it's too serialized, it's about terrorism, will women watch it, what if it bombs and we pull it before the conclusion...all valid questions but it was just too good not to make, so we did.

It was an awesome, high testing pilot with a breakout character brought to life by Kiefer, and we introduced an African American Presidential candidate to America. It was well received in our screenings. We debated the obstacles but it had to get on the schedule and we announced 24 for Tuesday nights at 9 in the Fall of 2001. FOX did not have a very good reputation for sticking with shows back then so Sandy Grushow and Gail Berman were bombarded with questions at the Television Critics tour about our commitment to running all 24 episodes. We knew that we were taking an enormous risk on several levels and we would be skewered if we pulled it. Didn't matter, we were going to roll the dice on this one.

After we announced 24, Warren Littlefield, my good friend and former boss, called to tell me that he had suggested to Joel Surnow (you all know who he is) that Joel call me and start a conversation.  Joel and I talked often that summer and the dialogue continued throughout Joel's connection with the show...including one fateful call after Season 3 which I will get to later. 

Joel was very proud of the pilot and its unique way of story telling. I tried to tell him the obstacles to success for a show like 24 but he was convinced we had a hit on our hands. Then shit happened on September 11. We discussed whether we delay the premiere of the show. We looked at the pilot again and realized that there was one very dramatic scene (a passenger plane explodes in mid-air) that had to be removed. We needed to reevaluate the marketing campaign. We made the corrections and, since the show wasn't premiering until November, we stayed the course.

The events of September 11th gave 24 a whole new meaning and relevance. In addition to figuring out the whole marketing strategy for 24, Sandy Grushow and I had a difference of opinion regarding the scheduling of the premiere. I wanted to premiere it as a two hour "event". The zen of scheduling is "the best lead in to a show is itself" and, having seen the second episode I felt that airing episode two immediately after episode one might convince skeptics that this was more than a gimmick. Also, getting viewers two hours into the story might hook them even better. Sandy wanted to give it a Simpsons lead in. Great flow and compatibility (sarcasm). I lost that debate.

The critics were solidly behind the show but, given the network, were wary of our commitment to keep the show on the air. Also was this really a FOX show? It was smart and adult. Shouldn't 24 be on say NBC with it's upscale, educated audience?

Here was the irony.  Over at NBC a recently installed idiot of a Network President...Jeff Zucker...was plotting to destroy the premiere of 24 with a classic NBC upscale show...FEAR FACTOR...the irony of all this was that while Zucker was in the initial phases of a scorched earth campaign to destroy all that was great about my Alma Mater, Gail Berman was transforming FOX from a network for 30 year old guys who live with their mother and date their hand into a smart alternative network, and 24 was a significant piece in that transition. Zucker waited until the last minute and announced a two hour Fear Factor would go against the premiere of 24. Jeff did us a big favor. Like most of his schemes (uh, Leno?) they blow up in his face and this was no exception.

Two things happened as a result of this move. The morning after the premiere of 24 the ratings were good but not great. I don't know if it was Fear Factor, an incompatible lead in or a marketing campaign that may not have captured the essence of the show (very tough to do) but before I had a chance to call Joel my phone rang and it was him...to this day I remember his exact words...."the ego has landed".  Joel, along with several of us at FOX, were so convinced we had a hit that the ratings threw us for a loop. We talked for a while about what happened and I reassured him that we were behind the show, the episodes were outstanding and we were going to tough it out. I think that the disappointment in the premiere ratings strengthened Joel's resolve to make this an epic show.

We never wavered and the following week, without Fear Factor (thank you Jeff) the ratings started moving in the right direction 24 went on to a phenomenal year in terms of ratings and creativity. As the season was winding down we faced a pivotal decision...whether of not to have Nina Myers (the first in a long line of CTU moles) kill Jack's wife Teri in the final episode of the season. As would be expected there were differing opinions. This show broke so many rules, how can we not end it in an unexpected and shocking way? Will fans of the show come back next season if we do not give them a satisfying upbeat ending?

Remember, 24 in its first season was, at its center, a family drama about Jack looking for his kidnapped daughter Kim. We shot two endings. We were in the scheduling room when David Nevins said we needed to make a decision and lock the final episode. David, Gail and I looked at the alternatives. I believe we went around the building and found some fans of the show and let them look at the alternatives, We debated and eventually decided that in the spirit of the show Teri Bauer would be killed. I think that was the most pivotal decision in the history of 24.

I remember the night of the finale watching the episode at home with Ms. Masked Scheduler. She was a huge fan of the show and she never wanted to know what was going to happen. I had no idea how she would react but I respect her TV instincts (an excellent picker of hits on all the networks). The scene came on and I'm waiting for the explosion of outrage. She shed some tears, looked at me and said "Well that's the show.".Jack was on his path and we had a hit on our hands.

The following season 24 came back to Tuesday night and for the next two years the show followed American Idol for the second half of its season. The ratings improved in year two but, typical of most television shows, we saw some erosion in season three. We did some audience research to see what was going on and something that stood out to me was the frustration among the fans about stretching out a show told in real time over a full television season. I had an epiphany. I called up MJ LaVaccare, my scheduling partner in crime, "Hey MJ let's do the Hebrew version of scheduling 24 (MJ knew by that I meant starting with the last episode of a show and scheduling backwards...a little scheduling trick). Let's assume it's on Monday away from the Idol disruptions and assume it is never preempted."

We played around with it and came up with a plan to launch it as a four hour Sunday/Monday event coming right out of an NFL playoff game and end it with a two hour finale in May. This meant saving 24 for mid-season. We would also follow the two night premiere of 24 with the two night four hour return of American Idol (entering it's fourth season). I called it our "shock and awe" moment….four hours of 24 followed by four hours of Idol.

I was about to have my second fateful call with Joel Surnow.  I walked him through the plan and the rationale for doing this. I promised him that, out of respect for him and the show, I would not approach my bosses with this idea unless he was fully on board. Joel bought in and the following year we made the move and the ratings improved. Season five ratings grew again and matched the all time high season two numbers Season five culminated in an Emmy for Kiefer and the show.

Yesterday, when FOX went out with the 24 announcement, I immediately flashed to that moment in COSTCO...looking at the 24 display and realizing just how random this business can be. How many hits were a decision away from disaster and how many misses may have followed a different path in different hands. 24 was one that we all got right. It's had a great run. Let's appreciate it for all it has accomplished.

No need (Tim Goodman) to be snarky about overstaying its visit...most shows do. But I will tell you that over the second half of this season Howard Gordon et al will throw everything but the kitchen sink at us. It's a wild final ride. Jack Bauer will live on and I'm looking forward to seeing him on Dancing With the Stars come Fall..he has time now and deserves to have some fun. So let's set up a perimeter and give thanks and praises to 24.