The move resulted in NBC's competitors and advertisers crying foul all week, accusing the fourth-place network of double dipping to boost their premiere rating. The protests to Nielsen were so vehement, even mainstream press got into the fight, delving into the rather wonkish, headache-inducing underworld of Nielsen number-crunching idiosyncrasies.
The heart of the complaints goes like this: We don't care if NBC wants a cume number to present to advertisers as long the original rating is still reported.
"NBC didn't do anything illegal, they're using a rule," says Fox's scheduling head Preston Beckman. "NBC has every right to run the show with the same commercials and have some kind of cume rating. It's Nielsen's obligation to still supply the industry with a separate program rating for both nights – because then NBC is using the rule to change their rating for the week."
Another annoyance among rivals: Few can ever use the rule the way NBC did. Since the measure only applies for shows repeated within the same Nielsen week and carrying the exact same advertisers, the "Heroes" premiere was perfectly positioned to take full advantage. The show was singularly sponsored by Nissan, debuted at the top of the Nielsen week and repeats Saturday during a low-rated hour. ABC executives noted they couldn't possibly double-dip Sunday night's "Desperate Housewives."
Nielsen has heard the complaints very, very clearly. Spokesperson Ann Elliot says they're re-evaluating the policy. Nobody thinks the rule will stay the same. Shows will probably be allowed to encore within any seven day period for a cume with the original night's numbers likely still reported as usual.
"We're definitely going to take into consideration everything we've heard this week and, yes, we've certainly heard a lot," Elliot says. "We didn't tell NBC how to use this new processing approach because we thought that would be inappropriate. NBC took a creative approach and used it staying within the bounds."
Asked if anybody besides NBC has given positive feedback about the rule, Elliot says, "I don't think anybody has come out and said 'this is great.'"
NBC paints a different picture, saying the network was merely complying with a change that everybody knew about; a shift that's necessary given the way viewers increasingly watch television outside of traditional live premieres.
"We didn't tell Nielsen how to calculate this, they told us," Wurtzel says. "The fact that people were surprised stuns me on a whole bunch of levels. What Nielsen did is absolutely appropriate."
Wurtzel's right that getting Nielsen to combine ratings from more than one source is a necessary digital-era goal, the problem for NBC was the move played so weak.
Instead of headlines about "Heroes" coming back stronger than ever, reporters waded hip-deep into eye-crossing Nielsen processing issues, a place nobody wants to spend their time.
Combined with "Heroes'" jarring and off-note product placement in the opening minutes of the season premiere -- where Claire (The Cheerleader) practically did hand springs for a new Nissan ("Oh Dad! The Rogue!") – the network needs to be careful not let its eagerness to appease advertisers overshadow its best brand.