The first batch of C3 ratings data for the 2016-17 TV season has been processed by Nielsen, and while the raw numbers suggest that some shows are having better luck at regaining lost commercial impressions when you count three days of viewing, time-shifting remains the greatest threat to the traditional advertising model.
According to the primetime deliveries captured by Nielsen during the week of Sept. 19-25, the average lift for a given show's final C3 rating versus its initial live-same-day delivery was just two-tenths of a ratings point, or approximately 256,640 adults 18 to 49. In other words, the networks are adding a little over one-quarter-million demographically relevant commercial impressions when the three-day currency data is calculated. And because that's the same lift that the business saw a year earlier, it can be said that the networks on the whole are making little headway in the battle against ad skipping.
When you look at the C3 data on a show-by-show and network-by-network basis, however, there are some outliers in play. For example, five shows enjoyed a lift of 0.4 ratings points or better in C3, although as has been the case in years past, the programs that see the greatest gains already tend to draw some of the largest live audiences.
Empire on top
Take last year's broadcast C3 champ, "Empire." In its Sept. 21 season three opener, Fox's sudsy hip-hopera averaged a 4.2 in live-same-day ratings, and while that was down considerably from its year-ago premiere, it still eclipsed every other scripted series. But as it has demonstrated so many times before, "Empire" enjoys the highest lift in the so-called currency, and its premiere week deliveries were no exception. According to Nielsen, "Empire" improved six-tenths of a point to a 4.8 in C3, which works out to a net gain of some 769,920 commercial impressions.
While the "Empire" C3 lift remains the gold standard, the show's meteoric momentum has slowed considerably -- and that deceleration was presaged by its declining live deliveries. In 2015-16, "Empire" bowed to gaudy 6.7 live-same-day rating among the 18-to-49 set, only to soar another 18% in C3 to end up at a 7.9, which translated to a little more than 10 million members of the networks target demo. "Empire" would continue its gravity-defying ways throughout the season, wrapping its second campaign with a net gain of 1.2 ratings points once its commercial deliveries were unraveled from the live data stream. (Coals to Newcastle; again, the average gain across the industry is just two-tenths of a point.)
Speaking of NBC and ABC, those two networks accounted for some of the other biggest gainers. NBC's new Tuesday night family drama "This Is Us" jumped from an already hearty 2.8 in the 18-to-49 demo to a 3.2 in C3, which likely went a long way toward the network's decision to give the show a full-season order before its second episode aired. Meanwhile, the Dick Wolf workhorse "Law & Order: SVU" jumped four-tenths of a point, from a 1.8 to a 2.2, making it one of just eight dramas to crack the 2.0 mark in premiere week.
Because so many of NBC's fall gross ratings points are generated by live/water cooler programming ("Sunday Night Football," two weekly installments of "The Voice"), the network tends not to see much of an improvement in its overall live-to-C3 deliveries. But thanks to the aforementioned two shows and a handful of other gainers like "The Blacklist" (up 0.3 in C3) and "The Good Place" (also up 0.3), NBC saw its premiere week average rise from a 2.5 to a 2.7 in C3, which broke an earlier tie with CBS and gave it sole possession of first place.
ABC only gained one-tenth of a point during premiere week, as many of its returning series didn't see much improvement upon conversion to C3. One of ABC's biggest gains came courtesy of its slumping Thursday 10 p.m. drama "How to Get Away with Murder," which kicked off its third campaign with a 1.4 in the demo. In keeping with its year-ago performance, "Murder" gained a half-point in C3, bringing its overall commercial impressions to 2.44 million adults 18 to 49. Unfortunately, that still marks a 39% drop compared to last season's premiere, which drew a 3.1 in C3, although "Murder" is hardy alone in that respect. All told, the Big Four nets' primetime C3 ratings were down 10% versus last season's opening week, a decline that has much to do with mushy NFL ratings and the ongoing disintegration of the 10 p.m. time slot.
Another ABC show that saw an outsized improvement in C3 was its new Beltway thriller (and media buyer fave) "Designated Survivor." The Kiefer Sutherland drama jumped from a strong 2.2 in live-same-day to a 2.7, earning itself a quick full-season order in the process. "Designated Survivor" was premiere week's No. 2 new series behind "This Is Us" and in posting that currency rating, it nearly doubled the 1.4 C3 rating posted by year-ago time slot occupant "Nashville".
The oldest-skewing network, CBS, once again didn't earn back a lot of commercial impressions in the conversion to C3 from live-plus-same-day, ending the week unchanged in its target demo with an average 3.2 among adults 25 to 54.
Many of CBS's big-reach vehicles draw impressively large live audiences, so the lack of a significant C3 gainer is not as troubling as it would be at an ABC or a Fox. For example, while "Bull" only gained a tenth in C3, premiering to a 3.5 currency rating among adults 25 to 54, it was also the third highest-rated new drama in the demo, trailing only "This Is Us" (4.0) and "Designated Survivor" (3.6). Likewise, despite not seeing any improvement in the shift to C3, with a final 3.7 rating, the new Kevin James comedy "Kevin Can Wait" was by far the No. 1 new sitcom in CBS's target demo.
For all that, CBS could boast that at least one of its premiere week programs secured a nice boost in C3, as the new action-adventure strip "MacGyver" jumped from a Friday-best 2.4 among adults 25 to 54 to a 2.7. To put that currency data into perspective, Fox's "The Exorcist" eked out a mere 1.5 among adults 25-to-54 on the same night.
Not surprisingly, TV's top-rated shows in premiere week actually lost ground upon conversion from live-same-day to C3. NBC's "Sunday Night Football" slipped from a 7.6 rating among adults 18-to-49 to a 7.3 in C3, reflecting its overwhelmingly live audience and the fact that those few viewers who do time-shift NFL action don't exactly wish to replicate the 94-ads-per-game experience. (It's a funny-enough ad, but after you've seen the Jamie Foxx Verizon spot 30 or 40 times, it begins to lose its innate charm.) Much the same applied to CBS' "Thursday Night Football" showcase, which dipped from a 7.0 live rating in adults 25 to 54 to a 6.8.
While a little slippage is inevitable, the sheer scope of those NFL deliveries in relation to the relatively puny numbers delivered by most general-entertainment shows goes a long way toward explaining why clients pony up so much cash to advertise in that live-sports environment. And because live sports are demonstrably more engaging and put up the highest commercial-delivery numbers, they more or less thrive outside the penumbra of C3/C7. As such, networks that derive the majority of their GRPs from live sports (like, say, ESPN) can leave the business of trying to get viewers to give up their DVRs to the other networks while they seek out new ways to monetize their unique audience.
The currency against which the vast majority of TV ad transactions are made, C3 blends a very rough estimate of average commercial ratings with three days of time-shifted viewing; as such, it offers networks, buyers and marketers the best approximation of actual ad deliveries. Or, to put it more plainly, C3 (and increasingly C7) are quite literally the only relevant ratings data. While the networks do not make the currency data public, favoring instead the stats-padding live-plus-three-day and live-seven numbers that omit commercial deliveries altogether, the only ratings that matter to advertisers are C3/C7.
Obtaining the C3 data is like pulling teeth, as the networks certainly do not want the unwashed masses to catch on to the fact that there generally is very little different between the live ratings and the currency data. But given that C3 and C7 are the benchmarks against which some $75 billion in TV ad sales transactions are guaranteed, they should not be swept aside in favor of the inflated L3 and L7 numbers that are peddled by the networks and breathlessly regurgitated by the vast majority of outlets that cover the TV business.