Ratings among viewers between the ages of 18 and 49 -- advertisers' favored demographic -- during the first week of the 2008-2009 season were off "just under" 10% on the five big broadcast networks, excluding sports and specials, according to John Spiropoulos, VP-group research director at Publicis Groupe's MediaVest. "There's the standard erosion plus incredible time-shifting as increased DVR penetration goes up," he said.
Among the TV heavyweights that took a hit in the 18-to-49 demographic upon their fall debuts were "Grey's Anatomy" on ABC and "House" on Fox. "Grey's" reached about 11.6 million live and same-day viewers between the ages of 18 and 49 when it premiered last season; on Sept. 25, it reached about 9.76 million, according to Nielsen Media Research. The first two episodes of "House" last season reached an average of 9.8 million live and same-day viewers between 18 and 49 last season; this season, they reached an average of about 7.1 million. Other networks are having launch pains too. NBC's vaunted sci-fi drama "Heroes" had reached an average of 9.8 million live and same-day viewers between 18 and 49 through two episodes last season. So far this year, two episodes of "Heroes" have reached an average of 6.4 million.
Depending on who's doing the talking, that performance offers fresh evidence of network TV's gradual decline -- or gives a good reason for advertisers and media outlets to come up with methods for measuring new audiences for TV shows.
Battle with competitors
With technology changing the way people watch TV, media researchers suggest the battle for ad dollars is no longer about growing audience but about taking share from others. "The main question for the networks is: Do you want to beat the three or four other networks or do you want to increase your audience?" said Sam Armando, senior VP-director of video research at Publicis Groupe's Starcom USA. In years past, "the idea was 'We're going to beat our ratings, not just beat our competitors' ratings,'" he added. "I used to measure success on how much they improved, and I've got to adapt to measure on how much they beat their competitors."
For all the naysaying, however, there are plenty of early successes. Media buyers say they are impressed with Fox's new paranormal thriller "Fringe," as well as CBS's launch of "The Mentalist." The CW, which had tremendous ratings issues last season, has seen increases in the average number of viewers between 18 and 49 watching "Gossip Girl" and "One Tree Hill" after five weeks of episodes, according to Nielsen. Likewise, two of CBS's Monday-night favorites, "CSI: Miami" and "Two and a Half Men," have also mustered increases in that demographic in early outings.
These numbers don't tell everything. Advertisers are paying based on so-called "commercial ratings" or "C3 ratings" that measure viewership of ads, not programs, as many as three days after the show originally airs. Those numbers, as well as measures of live viewers plus viewing up to seven days after the airdate of a program, take a few more weeks to process. Only then can a true picture of viewership emerge.
"You're going to see a significantly different pattern when we get the full live-plus-seven-day numbers in," said David Poltrack, chief research officer at CBS Corp. Younger, more-affluent viewers are the ones who primarily use DVRs, he said, so dips in live viewership among 18- to 49-year-olds are not unexpected. He said a significant portion of those viewers will turn up in DVR-playback data.
Networks are also suffering a hangover from last season's crippling writers strike, said Preston Beckman, exec VP-strategic program planning and research at News Corp's Fox. "The networks don't have as much new product to put on this fall," he said, which diminishes some of the excitement about TV that usually erupts at this time of year.
Even so, a single TV show is more readily available for consumption, whether it be online, on iTunes or in another fashion. Going forward, Mr. Beckman said, networks will have to pay more attention to offering advertisers a picture of total viewership of their popular shows across TV and emerging media. "The urgency, the immediacy of watching TV is starting to change, and as that changes, that's one of the reasons ratings are down a bit," Mr. Beckman said. "Hopefully, we're all smart enough to figure out how to offset the decline in on-air viewership with a way to monetize the other platforms."