Monday, December 7, 2009

Peetooplus - The (Un)importance of Total Viewers


It isn't sweeps, there aren't any new shows coming up, so I'm going to take this blarg in a couple different directions during the holiday season. For starters, in honor of tonight's premiere of TNT drama Men of a Certain Age, I'm getting back to the very basics of TV ratings: total viewers (AKA P2+, which sounds like "peetooplus," hence the post title) vs. the adults 18-49 demo. Just how significant are "people of a certain age" in the world of advertising?

At some point early on in my interest in TV ratings, it became drilled into my head that adults 18-49 is the number that matters to the networks. Most sites that relay daily TV ratings give you both the total number of viewers and the number of adults 18-49, but for some reason it just seemed like people who seemed to be "in the know" were focusing on the demo, like Media Life Magazine, which trafficked almost exclusively in those numbers. But for awhile in the fledgling world of Internet analysis of TV ratings, VIEWERS VS. DEMO was a legitimate debate, mostly between the CBS watchers who watch old-skewing shows and the everything-else watchers who watch young-skewing shows. It seems that debate is not as big a deal at this point. Most people just go to the demo, but will sometimes bring total viewers into the equation. (If it suits their spin. Wink.) The heavily visited TVbythenumbers primarily uses A18-49, which has probably helped.

In this day and age everybody can tell you why the demo is the number that matters: usually you'll hear some combination of "they don't have brand loyalty" and "they don't watch as much TV, thus they're in high demand." A lot of people are very unhappy about those reasons, but they're the best ones we've got. But thinking back on the evolution of the debate, I realized something: I've never seen any of the stuff proven. I've just gone along with the explanations, they made enough sense, but I haven't seen any of it backed up mathematically. And that shouldn't be good enough for a numbers nerd like me.

So here I am, with the "debate" pretty much settled, giving you the most untimely post ever; I'm gonna show you that the demo matters a lot more than total viewers in determining the price of advertising. And for those who still don't "believe" the demo is all that important, consider this series of posts TV Ratings 101.

I'm going to take the rates paid for a 30 second spot in '09-'10 and compare them to the shows' total viewer and demo averages (in originals) for the previous season. (The complete list of ad rates is here.) It's not really this simple, because there are many other things that go into these ad rates, like other metrics (A18-34, upscale, maybe DVR numbers, etc.) and some degree of speculation. To try to limit the power of speculation, I stuck to shows that returned in the same timeslot.

I'm also going to look at a couple other urban legends surrounding total viewers, namely "Total viewers matter on a Friday, because the demo ain't home!" and "Total viewers matter to CBS, because they care about their audience!" I'll also take a look at another way to potentially (and perhaps inversely) apply total viewers to the ad rates world: the concept of "skew." I've gone by the creed that a show's strength is what its demo is, and that it doesn't matter if it has a low viewer count or if it "skews old." But is that true? Will advertisers pay more for a "younger skew" (potentially getting more adults 18-34) or an "older skew" (meaning they can throw in some old folks on the cheap)? Or is "skew" statistically insignificant and just another fabrication of Internet spinsters?

More to come, but here's a little tease. These are a couple scatter plots that graph viewer averages against ad rates and then demo averages against ad rates.
Suffice to say, the demo one (blue) is a lot closer to looking like a line; that is, ad rates seem to have a considerably more linear relationship with the demo than they do with total viewers. Even if you're desperate to cling to the importance of total viewers, you have to admit that on the top graph, the line is considerably thicker. And that's being generous, because there isn't much of a line at all. More like a blob.

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