Monday, November 12, 2012

The Climate: Are We Waking Up from the Premiere Week Nightmare?

This is "The Climate," a weekly look at the "big picture" numbers of broadcast primetime. I will provide a few "big picture" numbers both week-by-week and from the season-to-date. These numbers will be the starting point for this post every week, and some weeks they will be pretty much the whole post. But I'm also hoping to do a column of sorts on a fairly regular basis, examining the big picture in much the same way I did in the A18-49+ posts last spring. I have a lot of big-picture observations that don't really fit into any of the "regular" posts around here, so hopefully this will provide an outlet for some of that.

Since I never really had the time in the crazy opening 6+ weeks of the season to get this off the ground, it means we have a lot of numbers in the books. So here's where we'll begin this. We all know that premiere week, when TV ratings get a ton of attention, was pretty hellish. But is this TV season still as nightmarish as premiere week suggested, or are things "evening out" somewhat?

Admittedly I have a bit of a "pro-TV" bias, so premiere week was pretty rough. It seemed like almost everything was coming in about 10% lower than it was "supposed" to. On Monday and even Tuesday I was blaming individual shows, but by week's end it had become pretty apparent that this depression was "the new normal." Here's how week one looked in overall viewing (TPUT), total broadcast viewing (bc) and the so-called "league average" from the A18-49+ project (LeAv), or the 18-49 rating for the average moment of programming on original episodes of regular entertainment series on the big four. Much more on these numbers at the bottom.

Week Ending TPUT y2y bc y2y LeAv y2y
1 9/30/2012 32.4 -6% 9.2 -16% 2.50 -15%

Both broadcast viewing and the league average were down in the mid-teens from last year's premiere week. This is a fairly catastrophic clip considering the normal year-to-year decline has consistently fallen somewhere in the upper zeroes; the league average has gone -9%, -6%, -9% and -7% at the end of the last four seasons.

Bad as it was, there were a couple obvious qualifiers. First was the notion that the fall 2011 numbers to which we're comparing were hugely inflated. There were a couple major inflationary events in the early-season league average in 2011: the massive breakout by CBS Monday thanks to Charlie Sheen/Ashton Kutcher, and premiere week of The X Factor drastically helping Fox on Wednesday/Thursday. Those events contributed significantly to a premiere week 2011 league average that was exactly even (-0%) vs. 2010. That's quite hard to achieve in the Live+Same Day world we live in. So maybe a -15% league average is just "making up for lost time," so to speak. Maybe it's a relatively normal drop times two.

The counter-argument to that is that (at least in The X Factor's case) the inflationary event is still there. As rough as it's been for The X Factor lately, it still (at least early in the fall) did better than the things Fox was putting in those slots in the fall pre-2011. And even if CBS Monday is no longer benefiting from Sheen/Kutcher, this fall did have another huge inflation on the numbers: a fall cycle of The Voice. So it seems pretty likely there was still a lot of underachivement.

The other qualifier is the last year-to-year number: overall viewing was down 6% vs. premiere week 2011. The yearly declines in broadcast viewing have come almost completely independent of overall TV viewing, which has not changed all that much in the last few years. So beyond a rejection of the broadcast options, there appeared to be a drain on TV viewing as a whole.

Maybe this was just a general rejection of TV as a medium, or maybe it was a case of what I can only describe as, "People didn't know it was fall yet." Maybe for some reason there was just less awareness of the fall TV season as a whole. After all, the spike in overall viewing for premiere week was fairly negligible; from 31.9 for the pre-premiere week to 32.4 in premiere week (+1%). So almost nobody started watching TV due to the broadcast premiere week. Compare that to 2011 when the PUT was 32.6 in pre-premiere week and 34.5 in premiere week (+6%). But the only way to know if this was a true "people didn't know it was fall yet" effect is to look at subsequent weeks:

Week Ending TPUT y2y bc y2y LeAv y2y
1 9/30/2012 32.4 -6% 9.2 -16% 2.50 -15%
2 10/7/2012 32.8 -5% 8.7 -15% 2.26 -17%
3 10/14/2012 33.7 -1% 8.6 -10% 2.33 -9%
4 10/21/2012 33.4 -3% 8.6 -6% 2.30 -6%
5 10/28/2012 34.2 -0% 9.1 -3% 2.12 -16%
6 11/4/2012 34.5 -0% 9.2 -9% 2.32 -11%

While week two was just about as brutal as week one, it seems that things have started to brighten a bit since then. The overall viewing levels have fairly consistently increased since premiere week to the point that they were about even year-to-year each of the last couple weeks. This is very different from 2011, when there was that 6% spike in premiere week, then the PUT remained virtually the same in each of the next five weeks, not really upturning till daylight saving time. The bc and league average measurements have also brightened somewhat, and this is despite rather large-scale preemptions on generally high-rated nights.

Here are the year-to-date numbers, meaning each row averages that week and all the weeks before it:

Week Ending TPUTy2d y2dy2y bcy2d y2dy2y LAy2d y2dy2y
1 9/30/2012 32.4 -6% 9.2 -16% 2.50 -15%
2 10/7/2012 32.6 -5% 8.9 -15% 2.39 -16%
3 10/14/2012 33.0 -4% 8.8 -14% 2.37 -14%
4 10/21/2012 33.1 -4% 8.8 -12% 2.35 -12%
5 10/28/2012 33.3 -3% 8.8 -10% 2.31 -13%
6 11/4/2012 33.5 -3% 8.9 -10% 2.31 -12%

Looking at the season-to-date, it appears all the climate numbers are indeed "evening out" somewhat. The league average has gone from -15% after week one to -12% after week six and overall viewing has made up about half of its week one deficit. The league average is just 8% lower now than it was five weeks ago (2.50 -> 2.31), which is the smallest week one -> week six decline in five years. Each of the previous four seasons it's dropped somewhere in the low teens across that period.

There are holes to be poked in those numbers. Maybe the PUT is largely up because of debates, which have typically created unusually high-viewed nights. Maybe the broadcast numbers as a whole are only getting favorable because The Voice is becoming a larger player relatively speaking. But even if all of this is legit, most people don't care about "the big picture" anyway. They care more about individual shows.

The individual show picture also seems to be getting a little better. Let's take a look at the 67 returning shows that had aired 2+ episodes through last week. 41 of those 67 shows (61%) are in better shape year-to-year through the end of week six than they were on premiere night. Not a hugely compelling number, but still at least something of a step in the right direction. Through Friday, 34 series this season have hit a rating higher than the season premiere number, which is about as many as achieved that all of last season. It seemed strange during the pre-premiere week when week two of The Voice and The X Factor were consistently building week-to-week, but it has become something of a trend. For some reason it's taking people a little time to file into broadcast TV this fall.

So let's look forward. There are indicators that (at least relative to premiere week) are pointing in the right direction, but this season as a whole remains historically weak. Does that mean we're looking at the opposite of the 2011-12 season, which started sensationally and ended up pretty much evening out by the end? Spring 2012 was drastically worse year-to-year than fall 2011, but fall 2011 set the bar much (much) higher than fall 2012 will. And we'll soon approach exactly one year since the huge downturn began.  If, as some execs suggest, there was some kind of DVRing "tipping point" in spring 2012 that is still depressing ratings this fall, shouldn't we expect something less than last year's spring downturn once we have a full year of data after that depression?

Not so fast. While the picture will likely continue to brighten for some individual series (like the Monday shows that won't have to deal with The Voice all winter), the daunting fact remains that what was once inflationary (The Voice in the fall) will soon become deflationary. In February and March, we're going to be comparing modest 2013 The Biggest Loser against 2012's The Voice at its very strongest on the all-important NBC Monday. A lineup that has almost singlehandedly prevented the league average from being a massive disaster (as opposed to the normal ol' disaster that it is) will suddenly become one of the great league average burdens. So while I think the league average may continue to trickle in the right direction through November, December and January, it will be tough to emerge from March unscathed. Unless, y'know, American Idol actually wakes up and has a good season. And I'm not holding my breath on that front.

Finally, some notes on the three "climate" numbers used herein.

TPUT - This is an ESTIMATED average of how many people are watching TV from 8:00 to 11:00.
  • I derive these numbers by adding up all the ratings and dividing by all the shares in each of the 42 half-hours each week. That means there is some error relative to the numbers Nielsen actually releases. Sadly we don't regularly have access to those. I always advise not to rely heavily on these numbers for any one show in any one week, but the hope is that the error is minimized across a 42-timeslot sample every week.
  • I include the Old Methodology adjustment, which makes the number more like a measurement of how many people watch primetime programming Live + SD, rather than a measurement of how many people watch any TV (including old DVR stuff) from 8:00 to 11:00. This makes the number perhaps less intuitive in a vacuum, but it's pretty much a wash when making week-to-week and year-to-year comparisons, which is what we're really interested in.
bc - This is an average of how many people are watching national broadcast TV from 8:00 to 11:00.
  • This does NOT include the 10:00 adjustment used in the True2 calculation which attempts to account for Fox/CW programming and stronger cable. Again, that perhaps hurts the number in a vacuum, because the 10:00 numbers being used only include three networks, so I'm averaging timeslots that are somewhat apples-to-oranges. But again, it's a wash when making comparisons because I treat it that way all the time. It would not really change week-to-week or year-to-year comparisons, and that's what I mostly care about.
  • Another important note here is that these numbers include the preliminary averages for "sustaining" programming like presidential debates and commercial-free benefit concerts whose numbers are typically omitted from traditional Nielsen averages. I might eventually omit these from this particular calculation, but they're needed on my spreadsheets to 1) make PUT calculations in those timeslots and 2) create a competition number for the entertainment shows that air against them.
LeAv - This is a measurement of how many people watch the average moment of original entertainment series programming on the big four networks. Meaning, no sports, no reruns, no specials, no movies, no sustaining programming included.


Spot said...

What a brilliant and informative post, thanks so much for the extensive research put into this!

Spot said...

Thanks for the kind words!

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