It was a month into the fall TV season last week, and we only just started getting the first indications over the fate of new broadcast series. That's not because this year's freshman slate is handing advertisers record audiences; they're often improving on the time slots they took over, but they're not matching the ratings networks would have demanded in the old days.
Instead, broadcasters are showing new patience as more TV viewing takes place days after initial airings and across a variety of devices. That's requiring them to evaluate the success of their series in a new light: a plethora of data that can take days or even weeks to marshal and even then requires interpretation that's not always straightforward.
"It used to be that you got overnights in the morning and nationals at 1 p.m. and then some weekly info," said Kelly Kahl, senior VP-Primetime at CBS. "Now there are four to five data sets a day. It's hard to keep up with all of it."
Marketers are, for the most part, happy to wait and eager to look at metrics beyond traditional ratings—just as long as they aren't stuck running commercials in a flop that stays on the air too long.
"We don't want networks to keep a show going, even if it does receive a lift from delayed viewing, if ratings keep falling, because it becomes a problem for reach frequency," one media buyer said. "Then what happens is we have to look for different sources to make up for the supply, and that won't necessarily be in TV."
Networks were once so quick on the draw that one episode could doom a show. NBC's 2008 series "Quarterlife," originally a web series about 20-somethings that the network picked up for traditional TV, never got a second episode on the air.
Instead of making snap judgments, executives are now practicing patience, hoping to allow new shows to develop an audience and perhaps reveal some gems that could be lucrative down the road in distribution deals. This strategy involves a delicate dance of balancing future revenue opportunities against an immediate present in which advertisers demand reach.
The continuing decline of TV ratings leaves a dearth of gross ratings points, most of which marketers can't make up on digital or streaming platforms like Netflix, and it is still the job of networks to find the next "Empire."
"That's the crux of the issue: How do we balance long-term revenue opportunities with the right now?" said Andrew Kubitz, head of scheduling at ABC. "If we love the creative of a show, we are more willing to bet on the long-term revenue."
Even as network executives downplay the importance of generally downward-trending live-plus-same-day viewing, it remains part of the decision-making process. "Primary live-plus-same-day numbers are an indicator of what the C3 rating will look like," Mr. Kubitz said.
"Live-plus-same-day ratings still provide a snapshot of how a show is performing compared with the competition," said Jeff Bader, president–programming planning, strategy and research, NBC Entertainment.
Executives look next to Nielsen's live-plus-three program ratings, which can take five days to arrive, and commercial ratings for the three days following a show's airing, or C3. That's the metric that means everything to marketers, but it takes up to three weeks to receive.
To decide the fate of a series, however, network executives are also increasingly mining data drawn from video-on-demand and streaming viewing, plus social buzz and the potential to make money by selling a series into syndication or streaming platforms.
While networks have a loose rubric of the metrics they look at and how much weight they put on each, the methodology varies not only from channel to channel but from show to show.
Take Fox's highly anticipated "Scream Queens." The Ryan Murphy horror-comedy premiered to just 4 million viewers, which was certainly a disappointment. But that audience grew 83% to 7.3 million in three days of viewing, including Nielsen's live-plus-three ratings and streams on Hulu and the Fox Now app.