Fox and ABC Are Winning the C3 Ratings War

'Empire,' 'Scream Queens,' 'Quantico,' Soar in TV's Only Metric That Matters

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Knife to meet you! Emma Roberts stars in Fox's cutting new drama 'Scream Queens.'
Knife to meet you! Emma Roberts stars in Fox's cutting new drama 'Scream Queens.' Credit: Fox

The first batch of Nielsen C3 ratings data has been processed, and while it appears that time-shifting largely remains a means to avoid watching the advertisements, a handful of broadcast shows in premiere week did see significant increases in their commercial deliveries over three days of viewing.

Over the course of the first official week of the 2015-16 broadcast TV season, from Sept. 21 through Sept. 27, Fox and ABC boasted the biggest gains upon conversion from live-plus-same-day ratings to the C3 currency data. Fox saw its 10 first-run prime-time shows improve three-tenths of a point, or 14%, to a 2.4 rating among adults 18 to 49, while ABC was up two-tenths, or 10%, to a 2.3 in the demo.

Fox's biggest C3 lift was generated by a show that isn't exactly hurting for live ratings. The season two premiere of the hip hopera "Empire" soared from an already garish 6.7 in live-same-day to a 7.9 in C3, a figure that represents a hair over 10 million demographically relevant viewers. To put that into context, "Empire" beat out the week's No. 2-rated scripted series, "The Big Bang Theory," by 72%, or a margin of 4.18 million viewers.

Not coincidentally, the season premiere of "Empire" also was the No. 1 VOD program on Comcast's Xfinity On Demand platform, which effectively assures commercial impressions by making it impossible for the viewer to fast-forward through the spots. (The nation's largest cable operator, Comcast serves 22.3 million video subscribers.)

If nothing else, "Empire" appeared to pick up where it left off last spring, when its first-season 18-to-49 average jumped from a 5.1 to a 5.9 rating upon application of the commercial ratings data. But Fox also got welcome news from one of its newest dramas, the seemingly underperforming Ryan Murphy horror spoof "Scream Queens." The Sept. 22 premiere jumped 24% to a 2.1 C3 rating from a 1.7 in live-same-day, making it the biggest gainer on a percentile basis of any freshman series.

Based on its premiere week VOD deliveries -- tucked in behind "Empire," AMC's "Fear the Walking Dead" and "The Big Bang Theory," "Scream Queens" was the No. 4 show accessed via Xfinity On Demand -- the C3 numbers were in line with our earlier projections. More importantly, the 0.4-point improvement shifts "Scream Queens" from a show that looked to be in danger of missing its ratings guarantees to a real contender for a renewal. (Don't look for a traditional back-nine order, as Fox committed to a close-ended 15-episode run a year ago, when it first green-lit the show. The order was marked down to a tidy 13 hours this spring.)

While Fox's sophomore DC Comics drama "Gotham" also enjoyed a big jump in C3, improving from a live 1.6 demo rating to a 1.9 in the currency, that wasn't enough to offset a vertiginous year-over-year decline. Last September, the "Gotham" pilot posted a robust 4.2 C3 rating; this year's adjusted delivery marks a 55% drop from that series-high number.

A similar dynamic held sway at ABC, which saw "How to Get Away with Murder" gain one-half a point upon application of C3, growing 19% to a 3.1 in the 18-49 demo. Unfortunately, the adjusted delivery still lagged the show's year-ago C3 rating by 31%, which only served to underscore just how rocky a fall it has been for many high-profile returning series. For example, while "Black-ish" adjusted up four tenths to a 2.8 in C3, that still represented a 26% drop off from the 3.8 the show nailed down in its year-ago series premiere.

But it wasn't all a matter of good news/bad news for ABC, which saw its new Sunday night drama "Quantico" jump 21% to a 2.3 among 18-to-49-year-olds, the so-called dollar demo, a nudge that can only accelerate the show's inevitable full-season order. Meanwhile, returning powerhouse "Scandal" added six-tenths of a point to its already solid premiere showing, drawing a 3.9 in C3 and establishing itself as the week's No. 3 scripted series behind "Empire" and "The Big Bang Theory" (4.6).

The downside of live TV
If Fox and ABC were able to more effectively steer time-shifting viewers to more ad-friendly platforms, thereby juicing their C3 returns, CBS and NBC didn't have anywhere near as much success. CBS only gained one-tenth of a point upon application of C3, while NBC's reliance on live programming effectively put the kibosh on any concomitant ratings lift. Live TV such as sports and late-season episodes of "The Voice," for example, is effective at pulling in viewers on the day that it airs but less likely to find viewers digging up back episodes.

CBS could lay claim to at least one premiere week show that blew up in C3, as the first installment of its new better-living-through-chemistry procedural "Limitless" mirrored the results for "Quantico." In jumping from a 1.9 live-same-day rating in the 18-to-49 demo to a 2.3, an already sturdy "Limitless" made a compelling argument for a back-nine order. "Limitless" also matched "Quantico" in the unheralded C7 metric, growing six-tenths to a 2.5.

CBS has led the charge to write more business against the more expansive C7 ratings currency, which tracks viewing over the course of a full week. That should only become more enticing to marketers as dynamic ad-insertion technology improves in the on-demand space. For its part, Fox this summer said it wrote more than half of its 2015-16 upfront deals against C7 guarantees, while NBC and ABC have been more tight-lipped about their respective commitments.

As was the case throughout the duration of last season, the shift from C3 to C7 in premiere week was hardly of seismic import. Setting aside the paradigm-busting "Empire," which grew another half-point upon application of C7, the average rate of change from one commercial rating to the next was just 0.1 of a point.

Lastly, it's worth noting that while NBC in premiere week didn't see any lift from live-same-day to C3, the network's three biggest programs ("Sunday Night Football" and the Monday and Tuesday night editions of "The Voice") are almost wholly dependent on live deliveries. The Sept. 27 Lions-Broncos game actually slipped two-tenths to a 7.9 demo in C3, while both installments of "The Voice" fell 6%.

As was the case around broadcast, NBC's biggest currency gains came courtesy of its newest series. Leading out of "The Voice" on Sept. 22, "Blindspot" improved 10% to a 3.4 in C3, while Thursday-night anchor "Heroes Reborn" moved up three-tenths, or 15%, to a 2.3.

"Blindspot" was premiere week's No. 5 show on Xfinity On Demand, while "Heroes Reborn" did not carve out a spot on the cable giant's top 20 list. While NBC likely will see it C3 ratings improve as it begins adding more scripted shows to its prime-time roster -- upcoming introductions include newcomers "Chicago Med" and "People Are Talking," as well as returning vets "Chicago Fire" and "Grimm" -- the network also may need to double down on its efforts to wean viewers off the commercial cannibal that is the DVR.

Whereas ABC accounted for four of the scripted series on Comcast's VOD leaderboard and Fox and CBS claimed two apiece, NBC's only top on-demand performer was the aforementioned "Blindspot."

Oh, and if you're a fan of some of the lowest-rated new dramas, you may as well pull them from your DVR queue now and save yourself the inevitable disappointment. Troubled "Quantico" lead-in "Blood & Oil" didn't budge an inch in C3, holding fast at a listless 1.4 rating in its premiere episode. And infinitesimal improvements at "The Player" and "Minority Report" brought both premieres to a mere 1.3 in C3, far below the acceptable threshold for a rating in a series premiere.

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.

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