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(Real) Ratings Race About to Begin

The new TV season is well under way and the overnight ratings have already taken some victims, like Fox’s Lone Star. But the ad buyers who invested a combined $8.6 billion already in broadcast network programming are still waiting for the numbers that will tell them whether or not their bets on new and old shows are paying off.

It takes Nielsen about 20 days to calculate C3, which is the basic currency of television advertising, the ratings which measure viewing of the national commercial minutes in programs by consumers within three days of air. And even then, Nielsen and the broadcast networks usually keep those numbers under wraps.

As DVR penetration has hit approximately 38% at the start of this season from 33% a year ago, delayed viewing is becoming a more important consideration as networks look at how and when their shows are being watched. At the same time, since the introduction of C3, advertisers have been able to get a better, if still imperfect, fix on how many people are viewing their ads.

Media buyers say it’s tough to predict a C3 rating based on the program ratings that Nielsen has already released. And because for a show like The Office, which gets a 30% lift in viewership from delayed viewing, that might be a good reason for programmers to wait before making decisions about which shows to cancel and which to keep on the schedule.

“The networks need to be more patient, because at least theoretically you might be cancelling a show that really does have legs and will over the course of a season add those viewers,” said David Scardino, entertainment specialist at ad agency RPA.

The effect of delayed viewing varies for different types of shows. Dancing With the Stars is a hit, even though it gets little lift from DVRs. On the other hand, DVR viewing is often very important to sci-fi oriented shows like NBC’s The Event, which the network said was the most played-back new show in the first few days of the season. That early success may be fleeting: shows like FlashForward and V also got a lot of delayed viewing early before flopping.

“I would be a little cautious with a show like The Event. We’re going to need two or three weeks of data to see if that delayed group holds up,” Scardino says. “Those people are going to be making the decision whether they want to commit to watching every week.”

In general, Scardino says middle-of-the-pack shows have the most to gain and lose when the C3 ratings are available. “A really big percentage of delayed viewers, 15, 20, 25%, can turn a middle-of-the-pack show into a winner,” he says. “And the reverse can turn it into more of loser.”

An exception to the need for waiting would be an obvious bust like Lone Star. “My first reaction when there was talk that Fox was going to cancel it was, ‘Why not wait?’” Scardino said. But Lone Star’s live viewing was “so low it would need recordsetting delayed viewers to even get back in the ball game.”

Media analyst Shari Anne Brill says that while media agencies base their buys on C3 ratings estimates, “it’s hard to predict if a show is going to be the type that’s highly timeshifted.” She notes that some CW shows nearly double their ratings because of DVR playback.

Those viewers who watch commercials during DVR playback might be very valuable to advertisers. “We know that people stay around for commercials that interest them,” Brill says. “There’s a lot of thinking that it’s the ultimate appointment viewing.”

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