C3 Ratings Are Winning Back Lost Ad Impressions, but They Won't Save Your Favorite Show

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With five full weeks of C3 ratings on the books, the 2016-17 broadcast TV season is coming into sharp focus, and despite the ravages of a host of extrinsic factors (time-shifting/cord-cutting/millennial drift/Netflix-and-chill, etc.), the data that advertisers care most about suggests that the networks are beginning to make some headway in the battle to recapture lost commercial impressions.

According to the Nielsen data obtained by Advertising Age, the 59 scripted series that aired on the Big Four broadcast networks from Sept. 19 through Oct. 23 saw an average lift of two-tenths of a ratings point upon conversion from live-same-day ratings to C3. And while that represents a rather modest gain in light of the ongoing decline in live viewing, the 0.2-point hike marks a 100% increase from the year-ago 0.1-point lift.

Top 20 Scripted Broadcast Series Weeks 1-5, A18-49 (Sept. 19-Oct. 23)
L+SD C3 lift % increase
1 Empire (Fox) 3.7 4.4 +0.7 +19%
2 The Big Bang Theory (CBS) 3.6/5.0* 3.7/5.1* +0.1/+0.1 +3%/+2%
This Is Us (NBC) 2.7 3.1 +0.4 +15%
4 Modern Family (ABC) 2.4 2.7 +0.3 +13%
Kevin Can Wait (CBS) 2.3/3.3* 2.4/3.4* +0.1/+0.1 +4%/+3%
6 Grey's Anatomy (ABC) 2.3 2.4 +0.1 +4%
Designated Survivor (ABC) 1.8 2.3 +0.5 +28%
8 The Simpsons (Fox) 2.0 2.2 +0.2 +10%
9 NCIS (CBS) 2.0/3.0* 2.1/3.1* +0.1/+0.1 +5%/+3%
Lethal Weapon (Fox) 1.9 2.1 +0.2 +11%
11 The Goldbergs (ABC) 1.9 2.1 +0.2 +11%
Bull (CBS) 1.8/2.8* 2.0/3.0* +0.2/+0.2 +11%/+7%
Speechless (ABC) 1.9 2.0 +0.1 +5%
14 Black-ish (ABC) 1.7 2.0 +0.3 +18%
American Housewife (ABC) 1.8 1.9 +0.1 +6%
16 Criminal Minds (CBS) 1.7/2.3* 1.9/2.6* +0.2/+0.3 +12%/+13%
Timeless (NBC) 1.6 1.9 +0.3 +19%
18 Law & Order: SVU (NBC) 1.6 1.9 +0.3 +19%
19 2 Broke Girls (CBS) 1.6/2.3* 1.7/2.4* +0.1/+0.1 +6%/+4%
20 How to Get Away with Murder (ABC) 1.2 1.7 +0.5 +42%
20-Series Average 2.075 2.325 +0.25 +12%
Source: Nielsen
*The second number listed after each CBS show's 18-49 average is the rating it delivered in the network's target demo, adults 25-54
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Of course, C3 isn't the only coin of the realm. When the more expansive C7 currency comes into play -- and nearly half of all broadcast negotiations are now transacted against the beefed-up seven-day metric -- the overall boost in commercial impressions jumps half a ratings point. In other words, in situations where C7 ratings are in play, the networks on average are cashing in around 641,600 more impressions among 18-to-49-year-olds than on the day of airing.

As much as the networks try to keep the C3/C7 numbers under wraps, preferring instead to promote the DVR-bloated, commercial-skipping, empty-calorie deliveries that are of little consequence to advertisers, the first month of currency data tells a story that largely defies prevailing wisdom that TV should be fitted out for a coffin. While the available data offers a mere glance through a relatively narrow window (each batch of C3/C7 numbers is released three weeks after the original broadcast week), the initial takeaways are generally positive. What follows are a few of the more interesting nuggets:

New hits are doing a lot of the heavy lifting.

While there may be a vast gulf separating the frontrunners and the cellar dwellers, you wouldn't know that from looking at the C3 ratings. Each of the Big Four nets can lay claim to at least one unqualified new hit, with top-rated NBC boasting the biggest runaway success in "This Is Us." Through the first five weeks of the season, the multigenerational ensemble drama averaged a 2.7 rating among adults 18-to-49 in live-plus-same-day, an already enviable performance that improved 15% to a 3.1 upon application of the C3 data. "This Is Us" is currently ranked third among all scripted broadcast series, trailing only Fox's "Empire" and CBS's "The Big Bang Theory."

Another newbie hit is ABC's Beltway drama "Designated Survivor," which also happens to be the freshman field's biggest gainer when you convert from live-plus-same-day ratings to C3. In its first month in the Wednesday 10 p.m. time slot, the Kiefer Sutherland thriller grew 28% to a 2.3 C3 rating among adults 18-to-49, up from an initial 1.8 in live-same-day. "Designated Survivor" is up 77% versus year-ago occupant "Nashville" and is ABC's highest-rated 10 o'clock program since "How to Get Away with Murder" bowed in 2014.

'Designated Survivor.'
'Designated Survivor.' Credit: ABC/Ben Mark Holzberg

CBS and Fox have high-performing newcomers of their own, although none of these shows is seeing a significant lift in C3. "Bull," which thus far has made optimal use of its "NCIS" lead-in, draws a 3.0 C3 rating in CBS's target demo, which translates to 3.61 million adults 25-to-54, up two-tenths of a point from its live-same-day average. Meanwhile, the Kevin James comedy "Kevin Can Wait" is averaging a 3.4 in C3, although the show's absolute deliveries have begun to crater with the loss of "The Big Bang Theory" as its lead-in. Lastly, with an average C3 rating of a 2.1 among the 18-to-49 set, Fox's "Lethal Weapon" is the season's third highest-rated new drama behind "This Is Us" and "Designated Survivor."

The No Man's Land that is 10 p.m. is luring back lost commercial impressions.

While the final hour of primetime is largely the province of commercial-gobbling DVR playback and first-run cable series, the ratings-hampered 10 p.m. shows are steadily winning back some of their squandered ad impressions in commercial ratings. Over the course of the first five weeks of the broadcast season, the 10 o'clock dramas are averaging a boost of three-tenths of a ratings point in C3 and a little more than half-a-point upon conversion to C7.

Among the 10 p.m. shows with the greatest lifts in the commercial ratings are ABC's "How to Get Away with Murder," which improved 42% from a fairly anemic 1.2 live-same-day demo average to a 1.7 in C3 and leaped 67% to a far more sustainable 2.0 in C7. (For the past few seasons, shows that over-index on women and African-American viewers have tended to see the biggest bounce in the currency data. With an average C3 rating of a 4.4 in the 18-to-49 demo, Fox's "Empire" boasts an industry-leading 0.7-point boost in the three-day currency, and its C7 deliveries brings it within striking distance of a 5.0 rating.)

Other 10 p.m. dramas that are improving their odds of survival via the currency include NBC's sci-fi adventure strip, "Timeless," which improves from a disappointing 1.6 in live-same-day to a 1.9 in C3, and the peripatetic NBC veteran "The Blacklist," which with an average C3 rating of a 1.5 has lifted the network's Thursday 10 p.m. currency deliveries by 25% versus the year-ago occupant ("The Player").

While commercial deliveries should keep the aforementioned shows on track for spring renewals, the same cannot be said for one of ABC's newest 10 o'clock potboilers. While the eyes of the nation were riveted on the presidential election, the network on Tuesday effectively canceled its sophomore legal drama "Conviction," saying that it while it would air all 13 produced episodes of the show, it had no plans to order any additional hours. And little wonder: Through its first three weeks in the Monday 10 p.m. slot, "Conviction" averaged a woeful 0.8 rating in live-same-day, inching up to a mere 0.9 in C3.

Also in jeopardy is ABC's Sunday 10 p.m. thriller "Quantico," which is scraping by with a 1.2 rating in C3. Once able to hold its own on TV's most overcrowded night, "Quantico" in its sophomore season now ranks as ABC's fourth lowest-rated drama, topping only its lead-in "Secrets and Lies" and the two doomed freshman series "Conviction" and "Notorious."

Scheduling still matters.

Buyers in May were all but unanimous in their praise for CBS's fall programming strategy, especially as it pertained to the positioning of the new legal/psyche drama "Bull." Starring "NCIS" alum Michael Weatherly, the procedural leads directly out of the actor's old show in the Tuesday 9 p.m. slot, which gave Tony DiNozzo enthusiasts extra incentive to sample it in the early going. From a pure reach perspective, "NCIS" is by far CBS's biggest draw, averaging 14.9 million viewers season-to-date, of which about one-quarter are members of the network's core 25-to-54 demo, so "Bull" is not only a perfect contextual fit but it also enjoys the greatest possible lead-in audience.

'Bull.' Credit: Jojo Whilden/CBS

Thus far, "Bull" has performed ideally in its time slot, retaining a staggering 97% of the "NCIS" demo with an average C3 rating of a 3.0. And while the show now competes with the season's hottest new hit -- in their two head-to-head meetings for which currency data is available, "This Is Us" is out-rating "Bull" among adults 25-to-54 by 40% -- it would appear that NBC isn't stealing share from CBS in the hour, as the ratings have been steady since "This Is Us" moved into the neighborhood.

Another new series enjoying the benefits of a strong running mate is Fox's "Lethal Weapon." While the buddy-cop dramedy enjoys the same sort of reverse-halo effect last season's "Rosewood" experienced as the lead-in to "Empire," its 21% improvement upon conversion from live-same-day to C7 gives "Lethal Weapon" the edge over its Wednesday 8 p.m. competition.

Meanwhile, ABC finally seems to have solved its Wednesday 10 p.m. conundrum with "Designated Survivor," which is not only up 93% in C3 compared to year-ago resident "Nashville," but is out-delivering its time slot rivals by a heady margin. Through Week 5, the Kiefer Sutherland drama is beatings CBS's "Code Black" in the currency by 77% and NBC's "Chicago P.D." by 35%.

One of just a handful of 10 p.m. shows to consistently out-rate its lead-in (ABC's two-hour family comedy block is capped off by the third-year sitcom "Black-ish"), "Designated Survivor" is also taking full advantage of its older-skewing rivals, bankable lead and rather timely narrative, which perhaps may be best characterized as "nestled in the proverbial hand basket, our nation's capital is inexorably advancing Hell-ward."

And now, the bad news.

As much as the networks would much prefer that no one outside the buyer/seller/client triangle ever get their grubby little meat hooks on the currency data, the numbers they offer as a substitute are weak beer. For example, in Week 4, "This Is Us" saw a 50% lift when three days of DVR playback were folded into the live-same-day stream, as the episode's demo rating jumped from an initial (and altogether respectable) 2.8 to a 4.2 in live-plus-three-day. But the currency data tells another story altogether, with "This Is Us" rising a more moderate 11% to a 3.1 in C3.

'This Is Us.'
'This Is Us.' Credit: NBCUniversal

Why does this matter? Well, for one thing, the live-plus-three, live-plus-seven and, hell, live-plus-365-day figures don't measure the average commercial impressions, which are the only minutes that actually have any significance to advertisers.

(Hypothetically speaking, if you were to record "Empire" and went on to fast-forward the actual content in order to feast on the commercials and network promos -- I said this was a hypothetical -- those views would count the same if you were to watch the show and all the ads live without touching the remote. The entire point of the ad-supported TV model is that viewers watch the ads, and anything that happens in the intervals surrounding those ads is pure gravy.)

Now, obviously no one in their right mind is going to zip through or zap past the misadventures of Cookie Lyons in order to watch that Aflac or Geico spot they've already seen a dozen or more times over the course of the evening, but the point remains that C3 and C7 are the currency against which some $75 billion in TV ad sales deals are negotiated, and as such they are the only relevant ratings numbers. (And that 0.2-point differential between C3 and live-same-day also puts the lie to the notion that the first wave of reported Nielsen data is somehow irrelevant.)

Now, as much as everyone understands that non-traditional video deliveries are woefully undercounted, and that the DVR-fattened live-three and live-seven data offer a more complete view of how many people are actually consuming a given program, we also know that viewers who catch up via their set-top time machines are skipping the ads. So when "Grey's Anatomy" jumps 62% in live-plus-three-day viewing, that's all very well and good for the showrunner and the cast, but it doesn't do the advertiser a lick of good. (Incidentally, in this particular Week 4 scenario, "Grey's" C3 gain was just one-tenth of a point, or 10% over the live-same-day rating.)

All of which is just a way to illustrate that the DVR numbers peddled by the networks are not going to have much, if any, of an impact on your favorite underperforming show. The Oct. 13 installment of "Notorious" nearly doubled its live-same-day average after three days of DVR playback, jumping to a 1.5 rating from a 0.8, but when that same episode ultimately eked out a 1.0 in C3, that didn't bode well for the show's survival. And with an average C3 rating of a 1.1, "Notorious" is a dead show walking -- which was made abundantly evident late last month, after ABC chopped the series' episode order down to 10 hours from its originally contracted baker's dozen.

Barring a sweetheart studio deal, a shot at the lucrative syndication market or an affiliation with a showrunner who enjoys most-favored nation status at the home network, a series-average C3 rating that flirts with the ever-contracting Mendoza Line (for the sake of argument, call it a 1.0) is the TV equivalent of the kiss of death. In other words, don't buy any green bananas, "Scream Queens." You probably shouldn't start reading "Infinite Jest," "Elementary." Toodle-oo and fare thee well, "Secrets and Lies."

'Lethal Weapon.'
'Lethal Weapon.' Credit: Darren Michaels/FOX

Conversely, there are shows that are already so mammoth that they don't require a commercial ratings lift. Any program that over-indexes on live viewing (the four national NFL windows, AMC's "The Walking Dead," NBC's "The Voice," etc., etc.) tends to lose a tenth of a ratings point in C3, although given the size of their raw audiences, it's not something that network ad sales execs lose sleep over. For example, the Oct. 23 "Sunday Night Football" stalemate between the Seahawks and Cardinals drew a 6.0 live-same-day rating in the 18-to-49 demo, which was adjusted down a notch to a 5.9 in C3. (Obviously, anyone who recorded this 6-6 tie wasn't going to sit through the commercials while watching in playback.) And on the scripted front, season six of "The Walking Dead" averaged a TV-high 6.5 demo in live-same-day, a stellar number that was nibbled down to a 6.4 in C3.

A final caveat.

If the DVR numbers are so much hot air, the C3 and C7 stats aren't exactly imbued with an aura of infallibility, either. For one thing, they are emblematic of a long-ago compromise made by buyers and sellers that was meant to be a temporary fix. And despite the fact that no one has ever been over the moon about the methodology, we're heading into the tenth year in which C3 has served as the currency. To say that this is less than ideal is to traffic in a realm of vast understatement.

Much of the (legitimate) griping over C3/C7 has to do with the fact that the metrics don't exactly measure what the terminology would seem to suggest. C3 doesn't provide a rating for each individual commercial in a pod; instead, it offers a rather rough weighted-average estimate of the advertising minutes that reside within a given program, which is nowhere near as precise a methodology as one might reasonably expect. (We sent an SUV to Mars, for crying out loud!) In estimating the average commercial-minute deliveries, gobbets of creative are orphaned at the margins of any given window.

If that weren't sufficiently frustrating, much of the non-linear programming that is designed to prevent viewers from skipping the ads isn't counted in the final C3 reckoning. Video-on-demand deliveries are only blended in with the currency data when the content is identical to the linear broadcast feed, which means that the same national commercial load that ran during the live TV transmission has to be baked into the VOD stream in order for those ad views to be credited.

Much of the VOD inefficiencies are expected to be addressed once Nielsen officially rolls out its long-awaited Total Content Ratings scheme, which will look to tally every eyeball across every possible viewing device -- a catch-all that includes traditional TV, VOD, DVR, connected devices, mobile, desktop computers, laptops, tablets and whatever new platform is introduced by the time the service is fully operational. Nielsen's latest target date for widespread deployment of the TCR data is March 1, 2017.

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