Monday, February 18, 2013

The Climate, Week 20: The Walking Dead is Even Bigger Than You Think

It's become a twice-yearly tradition on my Twitter feed: "The Walking Dead returns with a new series high! Its ratings are right up there with some high-rated broadcast program! Great ratings!" That sort of tweet times about 20. If I were only a casual ratings follower, I think my eyes would sort of start to glaze over at this stuff. Every single time, it's a new record, it's right up there with the broadcasters and it's doing great. At some point when it's happening every single time it doesn't seem all that newsworthy anymore.

Anyone who follows anyone who ever says anything about ratings knows it's doing "great." Maybe that's all that a renewal/cancellation-focused fan needs to know. But for the people with a larger industry interest, there are degrees of great. And as I've been saying for years, just "great" isn't enough for this show. Is there a way to put this show's ascendancy into a context more fitting than some of the more traditional comparisons? I dunno. But I'm going to point out some of the problems with the traditional comparisons, and then I'll take a couple stabs at doing better.

1. The Walking Dead is much more impressive in 18-49 than in viewership. Generally speaking, I'm not all that bothered by the fact that total viewership is still the standard metric of TV ratings talk in most outlets. It's easier to digest for a more mainstream readership, and I guess I can understand the argument that it's better as a descriptor of the "culture" than some segment of the population that advertisers like. Plus, using viewership usually doesn't make that big a difference. There aren't that many Harry's Laws out there, where the total viewer picture leads you vastly astray from the "real" picture.

This show might be another Harry's Law. It's not that 18-49 vs. viewers is the difference between renewal and cancellation, but it is the difference between hit and blowout megahit. If you see someone say, "The Walking Dead returned with 12.3 million viewers!" it wouldn't be an unreasonable reaction to respond, "Nice, but doesn't NCIS get 20 million every week?" When you stack the show up with some of the older-skewing broadcast successes, the show gets a shorter shrift than is the reality. You might think cable's creeping up on broadcast, but it's not there yet.

In reality, The Walking Dead has lapped NCIS and every other broadcast drama in terms of advertising-friendly audience. It averaged a 5.32 18-49 rating this fall (and a 6.1 for the spring premiere), while NCIS is averaging a 3.46 with a high of 4.1. I haven't seen 18-34 numbers for TWD, but I think it's pretty safe to say the gap is even wider there.

2. Comparing it to its own already unbelievable ratings is too high a standard. "Series high" is another of those terms that's easy to just skim over. A series high is a more impressive feat now than it was many years ago, because of the collective downward momentum in TV ratings. But it's still not that uncommon, particularly on cable. Lots of serialized cable dramas are still growing. However, a series high for a Homeland, a Shameless, a Breaking Bad or a Game of Thrones is not exactly the same thing as a series high for The Walking Dead. The "series" that came before was not getting breakthrough numbers in those cases.

To grasp the gravity of a "series high" for The Walking Dead, you have to understand how impressive the rest of the series was. And "series high" doesn't really tell you that on its own.

3. Comparisons to The Big Bang Theory obscure just how impressive TBBT itself is. A common method of putting The Walking Dead's ratings in proper context is to compare it to the top broadcast show, The Big Bang Theory. Admittedly this is a pretty impactful comparison, especially if you remember the good old days when basic cable had no chance of competing with the broadcasters. This portrays the impressiveness better than using total viewers or a "series high" label.

But I also think saying "it's right up there with the #1 broadcast show!" is a slight... namely to the #1 broadcast show itself. It's worth keeping in mind that the #1 broadcast show is also unlike any scripted program in recent history. The Big Bang Theory currently has a 242 A18-49+, meaning it's doing 2.42 times the average piece of big four entertainment programming. That would be the highest multiplier for a scripted show in six years. The last show to do better was the peak season of Grey's Anatomy, which had a 251 in 2006-07. There was actually a three-season stretch in the late aughts in which zero scripted shows even managed twice the league average (200 A18-49+).

Here's a simpler raw numbers comparison. In week 20, Big Bang had a 6.2 and The Walking Dead had a 6.1. Let's go back to the 2010-11 season. That was two years ago. There have been a lot of ratings drops in two years, right? Collectively, yes. The broadcast entertainment average will likely end up about 15% lower now than that season. But the biggest episode of scripted TV in the entire 2010-11 season got a 5.9 demo. The #1 of today is strong even by #1 standards. And The Walking Dead is right there with it.

Seeking a Proper Context

So I've thrown out a few problems, and I tried to specifically address how much more impressive the show is than that comparison suggests. Are there any better ideas?

I have one factoid and one general method. The factoid: The Walking Dead had a stronger spring premiere than American Idol! Come on! Of course, to understand that one, you have to know that Idol was the defining television show of the aughts and for awhile pulled at least three times the entertainment average (300 A18-49+). Maybe a lot of people know that (or at least the first part), but then you might just argue that Idol is well past its prime and it'd be more impressive if Dead could've beaten an in-its-prime Idol and all that jazz. So I won't spend too much more time on that.

Here's the method: how about we put the show among its actual peers for once? Sure, The Walking Dead has caught up to the top broadcast shows. But cable as a whole hasn't really caught up to broadcast as a whole in terms of what's considered a failure/a success/a hit. The only rung on the broadcast and cable totem poles where the numbers are close to the same is the very top one, and that makes TWD all the more impressive.

What's the cable drama picture look like? The very strongest are True Blood and Sons of Anarchy, which rate somewhere in the 2's. Game of Thrones was just below 2.0. Then there's a drop to a large tier in the low-1's: American Horror Story, Falling Skies, Suits, Burn Notice, Breaking Bad*, Dexter. Just a few of the large sub-1 crowd: Justified, The Americans, Shameless, Homeland, Mad Men, Boardwalk Empire, and pretty much everything else on TNT and USA.

That's the cream of the cable crop. Then there's The Walking Dead. 5.32 fall average. 6.1 spring premiere. People don't make these comparisons because, really, there is no comparison. But logically, it's still the "best" comparison. Some food for thought.

*- To wrap this up, I want to note that it's not just Walking Dead comparisons that come up short. There are also bad comparisons involving other shows against The Walking Dead. Nothing suffers from this more than the other AMC dramas, and the most recent Breaking Bad season was perhaps the most egregious example. Its summer 2012 season should've been considered an absolute breakout; it premiered to a 1.5 and averaged a 1.28 demo, up a whooping 58% year-to-year. As you can see from the lists above, that made it a bonafide second tier cable show that beat most of the USA and TNT offerings from that summer. That means you are a cable hit. But I feel like we didn't hear about that enough. Instead, The Walking Dead was the show that lifted AMC to ratings competitiveness while Breaking Bad was one of the art house shows that "nobody watches." This show had quietly become a cable hit, and all anyone wanted to do was compare it to Dead. That one really pissed me off.


Week Ending TPUT y2y bc y2y LeAv y2y
161/13/201334.6 -4% 8.7 -10% 2.01 -8%
171/20/201334.5 -7% 8.8 -19% 2.25 -11%
181/27/201334.6 -2% 7.2 -6% 2.25 -8%
192/3/201336.1 +1% 12.1 +4% 2.32 -11%
202/10/201333.9 -4% 8.4 -20% 2.12 -15%


Week Ending TPUTy2d y2dy2y bcy2d y2dy2y LAy2d y2dy2y
19/30/201232.4 -6% 9.2 -16% 2.50 -15%
510/28/201233.3 -3% 8.8 -10% 2.31 -13%
911/25/201233.5 -3% 8.8 -9% 2.26 -12%
1312/23/201233.4 -2% 8.5 -6% 2.24 -10%
171/20/201333.4 -3% 8.3 -8% 2.20 -10%
181/27/201333.5 -3% 8.2 -8% 2.21 -10%
192/3/201333.6 -2% 8.4 -7% 2.21 -10%
202/10/201333.7 -3% 8.4 -8% 2.21 -11%

Get ready for a month and a half of pretty brutal year-to-year comparisons for broadcast TV, as we're now comparing NBC's Voice/Smash Monday at its peak against the much weaker The Biggest Loser/Deception lineup of the present. And that's coincided with a sudden American Idol meltdown. -20% was the worst year-to-year trend of the season in broadcast viewing (a large drop by the Grammys also contributed), and -15% for the league entertainment original average was the worst relatively "normal" week since the opening two of the season. That meant the season-to-date league average contracted to -11%.

Click to expand for more on the "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.

Note: Beginning with week 9, all numbers compare against the next numbered week in the 2011-12 season. So week 9 compares against week 10 of 2011-12, etc. This was done to make the comparisons more calendar-friendly. See here for more on that.

1 comment:

Spot said...

I have admit that I have made the "X cable show isn't really a hit because Walking Dead" argument before. It's just hard to look at the top 1% of the cable field getting mid-1s to low-2s as being succesful when we know from TWD, Jersey Shore and Hatfield's vs. McCoys that its capable of twice that.

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