Sunday, February 24, 2008
Monster Guest Post: Michael Hinman
Tuesday night, as the second episode of "Jericho" was airing on CBS, I decided to go to bed early. It's deadline day in my real job, and I was exhausted. So why not let the DVR do what it's designed to do, and allow me to watch one of my favorite shows when I'm more awake?
Convenience is something society has longed for, and DVRs (and its predecessor, the VCR -- you can find those in the Smithsonian) are the poster child of that kind of society. Nothing wrong with that, in my book, that is until I see the overnight ratings the next day and find that the "Jericho" audience is eroding.
I have to ask myself, it is my fault? Did I cost "Jericho" a big set of eyeballs that could've helped boost it in the Jewish and overweight male 18-49 demographic? Should I have called my mom in Pennsylvania just before the start of the show to make sure she was tuned in?
While it's important to make sure that people ARE watching the show, unless you're a Nielsen Family (and trust me, you'd know if you're a Nielsen Family), you could make sure everyone in your town was gathered in your living room to watch the show, and it wouldn't matter a single iota.
Believe it or not, Nielsen isn't tracking every single household, every single viewer. In fact, for many decades, Nielsen has depended primarily on statistical sampling to provide audience measurement. That means choosing households in different markets at random (believe it or not, families are NOT picked based on demographics ahead of time), and then tracked and categorized based on the demographics they represent. But what the heck does all that mean?
During each reporting period, Nielsen releases a pair of numbers they say represent the audience of a particular show. For example, a recent overnight rating gave "Jericho" a 3.9/8. By itself, those numbers are practically meaningless, but they do say a lot. Without having to look at anything else, you can tell that a little over 4 million households turned on "Jericho" the night before. That's because the 3.9 is a household rating. Each rating point is a percentage of the 111.4 million households in the United States that has a television, so that means each ratings point represents 1.1 million households. Remember, however, that this number is different from the total number of viewers, because depending on the show, a household could have anywhere between 1 and 100 people who could be watching a show at any particular time. More commonly, however, it's about 2 people in every household, and more if it appeals to family audiences.
It's easier to track the number of households watching a particular show than it is the number of viewers, although viewership numbers are becoming easier to determine thanks to advances in technology spearheaded by Nielsen. More and more Nielsen Families are using a device known as a People Meter, which looks like a small cable box and a remote control. The box records data on what the family is watching, and sends it each night to Nielsen Media Research's Oldsmar, Fla. facility (which just happens to be a dozen or so miles from where I live). Each family member has their own assigned number that they press on the remote control when they watch TV so Nielsen knows if mom and dad are watching one thing, and the kids are watching another. However, a majority of families still use paper diaries, meaning each person in the house documents what they were watching, how long they watched it for, and who all watched it with them.
It's a rather complex process, but is the lifeblood of helping to determine who is watching what.
The second number found in the 3.9/8 example is what is known as the "share." If you looked at "Jericho's" household numbers, you will quickly discover that only 3.9 percent of the total TV households in America were tuned in, which doesn't seem like a lot. But what if many of those families weren't home? What if they were like me and decided to go to bed early? Should that count against shows like "Jericho"?
That's where share comes in. While 3.9 represents the total percentage of households tuned in to a show, the share represents the total percentage of households that had their TV on that were tuned in. That means 8 percent of all television sets turned on were on CBS during that time period.
Do the math, and and you may panic that 92 percent of households that had their TV turned on weren't watching the show. But please, sit down and drink a glass of water. Even the best performing shows are lucky to get 20 percent of households with TVs turned on to be watching their shows. There are a lot of channels out there for people to watch, and getting a share of that audience is difficult at best for anyone. Not even "American Idol" can pull in better than 25 percent of those televisions.
Now that the numbers make more sense, how can we use ratings to determine the fate of our shows? Well, that's where it gets very complicated.
Nielsen has no interest in what shows survive and what shows die. Contrary to popular belief, networks don't ask for ratings in order to see what survives and what doesn't. They pay for these ratings for one primary goal: to know how much they can charge advertisers who buy commercials for their shows.
Obviously, a show that pulls in 7 million households will demand more money per 30 seconds of commercial airtime than a show that has 5 million households. But overall numbers isn't how everything works. There are so many substrata of numbers that networks look at, like demographics. It's not just about black, white, Hispanic, or Asian, or male or female, or even age ... it's a number of audience subsets created based on nothing more than their buying power. Adults 18 to 49 is one of the key demographics because they have disposable income. Although the gay and lesbian community reportedly only represents 10 percent of the total population, they also are a key demographic because without children to pay for, they have a bit more money to spend (and boy, do they like to shop!)
Seriously, though, a question I have received a lot over the last 10 years running SyFy Portal is why did Show X, with an average rating of 4.5 get cancelled while Show Y, with an average rating of 3.5 stay on the air? What's the magic number?
There is no overall magic number. Each show costs a different amount to produce. "Jericho," obviously, is more expensive to produce than "Boston Legal," but cheaper to produce than "Battlestar Galactica." Going into any project, a network determines how much money they need to make, to not only pay for the show, but also to make money as well (this is showBUSINESS after all). I don't know what the target numbers are for "Jericho," but for example's sake, CBS could sit down and say that "Jericho" needs a household rating of 4.5 for it to earn enough advertising dollars to pay for itself and for them to break even. However, stockholders who invest in CBS Corp. want to see big profit margins, so the network needs to hit a 5.5 in order to make the minimum profit margin demanded for the show, because it can charge higher advertising rates for a 5.5 than it can for a 4.5.
But then "Jericho" comes in with a 4.7 consistently. Does that mean "Jericho" will automatically be cancelled? Not exactly. There are a number of other factors involved. Does "Jericho" have a fanbase outside its live viewers who tune in right when the show airs? Is it making a lot of money with rebroadcasts in other markets, and overseas? Are other distribution nodes popular like downloads on CBS.com or iTunes? Is it projected to make a lot on DVD? Could CBS replace "Jericho" with something they think will better meet profit margins or ratings expectations?
It's never a black and white answer, and many times comes down to nothing more than a judgment call by a network exec. Over the past decade. SyFy Portal has had a tremendous track record in predicting shows that would stay or go, mostly because of our detailed understanding on the ratings that matter to networks, and because of long-term relationships we've maintained with sources who are part of the bean-counting pool. In fact, one of the rare occasions where we were actually wrong was with "Jericho." The numbers, while down from the first half of the season, were still pretty strong by network standards, and we were told by our sources at CBS that it looked almost certain the show was going to be greenlighted, something that has since been confirmed by network officials. But at the last second, CBS had a change of heart, and suddenly "Jericho" was no more.
While there is a tremendous amount of science backing decisions on whether shows live or die by the Nielsen sword, it still comes down to human judgment in the end. And you can't fault the network heads. They have all the variables you read about above and many, many more swirling around in their heads, and they have to make the best decision they can while trying to satisfy as many people as possible. They know that decisions to cancel shows caused them to be vilified, but we have to respect the fact that they know what they are doing, and if we disagree we, we do it the "Jericho" way -- we are polite, we speak in terms that networks understand (helped by having a detailed knowledge about how they made the decisions they do), and we send tons and tons of nuts just to make sure they don't forget about us.
"Jericho" fans proved that can work, and I still have a special place in my heart for all of the Rangers who helped bring my show back to the network.
Michael Hinman is the founder and site coordinator for SyFy Portal, a leading independent science-fiction and fantasy news Web site run by fans for fans. He resides in Tampa, Fla., and is author of the popular weekly column, SyFriday. He covered the "Jericho" campaign practically from the beginning, being the first Web site to interview the company handling distribution of nuts, and was one of the first to announce the show's return a month later.