The CMO's Guide to Fall TV Ratings

Here's What You Need to Know About the Dynamics of the Mediums

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Credit: Illustrations by Alex Nabaum for Ad Age

One of the biggest obstacles for TV marketers is measuring fragmented audiences who are increasingly watching TV on a delayed basis and on multiple devices. Measurement has been unable to keep up with the changes in viewer habits, and as live TV viewing continues to decline, this has influenced how marketers spend on TV and how networks can monetize their content.

It can be difficult to decipher what can actually be measured and how advertisers can best count viewers. New measurement capabilities from Nielsen coming this fall, along with a change by TV networks in how they handle ratings announcements, will only add to the confusion.

Here's a breakdown of what marketers need to know about TV ratings as the fall season kicks off in earnest.

Mobile Will Finally Be Counted

Quite possibly the biggest frustration among TV networks and advertisers is the inability to include smartphone and tablet viewership in Nielsen's total audience figures. But this fall that will change. Nielsen will now count mobile devices toward its total audience ratings.

Initially, mobile ratings aren't expected to tip the scales, and measurement will be uneven as not every TV network will adopt it immediately, said Cheryl Idell, exec VP-media product leadership at Nielsen. But mobile ratings will eventually give advertisers a better gauge as to just how many people are really watching an episode of "The Blacklist" or "Scandal."

NBC's "Parks and Recreation," for example, sees 37% of its viewership coming from devices that were previously not being measured as part of Nielsen's Total Audience rating, said Alan Wurtzel, president-research and media development at NBC Universal.

Initially, the measurement will not include viewing that takes place on PCs, but Nielsen is working to include those metrics.

The big question is once mobile ratings are fully adopted, will it help advertisers to reach younger viewers? Mobile ratings could create opportunities in TV for advertisers who have increasingly shifted money to digital platforms to reach the demographic.

VOD Finally Gets Its Moment

Nielsen made on-demand commercial ratings (ODCR) available on Sept. 1. It's currently being tested with clients, according to Nielsen. This means an advertiser can buy commercial time on this week's episode of "CSI," and not only will CBS run the ad in that episode, it will dynamically insert it into all episodes viewed on VOD during that week, explained David Poltrack, chief research officer at CBS. While VOD usage has been growing, adoption by advertisers has been slow. Dynamic ad insertion and ODCR ratings could create incremental value for the platform as an extension of traditional TV buys.

The Death of Overnight Ratings

As a bigger portion of audiences watch TV on demand, traditional overnight ratings represent less of the total picture and don't tell marketers the full story regarding the strength of any given program. As much as 20% to 30% of the TV audience is no longer reflected in overnight ratings, according to Billie Gold, VP-research and programming at Carat. NBC's "The Blacklist," for example, sees 41% of its viewing take place on a delayed basis, Mr. Wurtzel said. Still, overnight ratings, especially for live competition shows like "The Voice" or "Dancing With the Stars," have a place in the market.

Networks Will Play Fortune-tellers

Broadcasters will provide their own projections for viewing that takes place in the days following a program's air date. CBS is supplementing its daily overnight ratings with predictions for seven-day ratings, while ABC and NBC will include forecasts for viewership in both the three days and seven days after an episode premieres. Fox has made these projections available since last season. It's worth noting that networks are providing forecasts for live-plus-three and live-plus-seven ratings, which do not reflect viewership of commercials. Those are reflected in C3 and C7 ratings, which show the average commercial minutes in a program viewed three and seven days after an episode.

Pay Attention to the Full Year

Traditionally, marketers have focused on the performance of the broadcasters during the September-to-May season, when the networks air the bulk of their original programming. But broadcasters are getting into a 52-week business, airing more original, scripted series in the summer months.

As a result, NBC has released ratings for the entire 52-week season. While the numbers don't alter the picture dramatically -- even when taking into account the summer months, all four networks retain their rankings -- there may come a time in the not-so-distant future when these shows change the broadcast story.

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