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Agency Execs: If It Smells Like a Miss, Why Call It a Hit?

Buyers rankled by full-season orders for low-rated freshman series 10/11/2012 02:46:24 PM Eastern

Media agency
executives are shaking their heads over recent announcements by NBC and Fox to
give full-season orders to some freshman series that have aired only a few
times and produced less-than-stellar 18-49 demo ratings.

They say they
can't recall when this many poorly-rated new primetime series were committed to
by broadcast networks so early in the season and are concerned that down the
road, it could have a negative impact on the ad packages they bought for
clients in the upfronts.

"I've seen
instances where new series that were incredibly strong over their
first few weeks were given full-season orders early, but never this many shows
so early and at these ratings," says Sam Armando, senior VP, director
strategic intelligence, Starcom MediaVest Group Exchange. "It indicates that
they are satisfied with a series doing a 1.6 or 1.8 18-49 rating and if that's
what they are saying, it's very scary."

NBC recently
announced that it placed orders for "back nine" episodes (for a total of 22)
for freshman drama Revolution and first-year sitcoms Go On and The
New Normal
. Fox has given full-season orders for freshman sitcoms Ben
and Kate
and The Mindy Project.

Fox
Entertainment chairman Kevin Reilly says the decision to order full seasons of Ben
and Kate
and The Mindy Project "is a signal of longer-term thinking"
on the part of the network. "We are beginning to reach a place where it takes
longer to build audiences for shows. . . there are so many programming options
and so many platforms for viewers to watch them on, that each series needs to
be given time for viewers to sample them and find the shows they like. Today,
people are watching TV shows at their own pace."

"If a series is
strong creatively, we are willing to take a flyer on it, even if the ratings
aren't where we might want them to be," says Jeff Bader, president of program
planning, strategy and research at NBC.

Media agency
execs did not have as much of a problem with the full-season order of Revolution,
although sci-fi series on broadcast networks, with a few exceptions, have a
track record of starting strong and continuing on a downward track for the rest
of the season. Revolution is averaging a 3.2 in the demo after three
airings in its regular 10 p.m. Monday time period. Although it has declined
from a 4.1, that 23% decline is typical for new series. However, it needs to
stabilize soon.

Go On's first-run episode ratings are
skewed because NBC premiered it during its Olympics coverage. Since it
premiered it its regular time period of Tuesday night at 9 on Sept. 11 with a
3.4 18-49 rating, it has dropped steadily. Its fourth episode averaged only a
2.1 demo rating, down 37% from the premiere.

The New
Normal
also premiered in
its regular time period on Tuesday night at 9:30 on Sept. 11 and drew a 2.5
18-49 rating. On Oct. 2, it was down to a 1.7 rating, a decline of 31%.

On Fox, Ben and
Kate
fell to a 1.6 18-49 demo rating in its second week, while The Mindy
Project
 dropped to a 1.9.

"I've never seen
anything like this," says Billie Gold, VP, director of buying/programming
research, at media agency Carat, reacting to the shows' full-season orders. "I've
seen cancelling a show very quickly after an episode or two, but I've never
seen this level of buying more episodes so early of series that are not doing
very well."

More Days, Better Numbers

The networks have
been releasing live-plus-three-day viewing numbers that have shown considerable
ratings increases for the shows; networks are likening that to the C3 rating that
is the currency which media agencies base their upfront buys on.

Last week, live-plus-three-day
viewing increased Revolution's 18-49 rating to a 4.8, a 50% jump; The
New Normal
's demo rating
increased from a 1.7 to a 2.4, a 41% rise; Go On's 18-49 rating went
from a 2.1 to a 2.7, up 29%; Ben and Kate's 18-49 rating rose from
a 1.6 to a 1.9, up 19%; while The Mindy Project's demo rating
went from a 1.9 to a 2.5, an increase of 32%.

But the media
agencies say those ratings are meaningless because they are three-day viewing
ratings, not commercial ratings. They say it doesn't matter how many more
viewers watch shows in DVR mode, as a sizable portion are always going to fast-forward
through the commercials and it's the commercial viewing that clients are
paying for.

The more
valuable C3 ratings have not come in yet for the first two weeks of the official
start of the regular season.

"Advertisers don't
care who watched a program in DVR mode," SMGx's Armando says. "We want to know
who watched the commercials. C3 ratings measure who's watching only during the
commercial minutes of each show. Nielsen has to go in and weed all of that data
out. That's why it takes a few weeks until after each show airs to compile that
C3 data."

Media agency
Carat did put together an audience estimator for commercial viewing (C3) within
the broadcast network shows that aired during the week of Sept. 17-23. What
they show is that most series' live-plus-same-day program ratings go down when
the C3 measurement is used. "Comparing live ratings to live-plus three-day
ratings offer no barometer at all as to how a show will do with C3 ratings," says
Carat's Gold. "And very few shows get a big bump in ratings when you compare
live program ratings to C3 ratings."

The two Fox
series did not premiere during that week, but the three NBC series did air in
their regular time periods that week. Revolution, which showed such a
sizable gain from live-plus-same-day to live-plus- three-day ratings, showed no
gain at all when live-plus-same-day was compared to C3. Go On, which showed a 29% gain from live to live-plus-three,
actually showed a 2% decline when live was compared to C3. The New Normal
was one of the few shows that actually showed a small gain of 8%, not the 41%
it did when comparing live to live-plus-three.

The Name Of the Game

So the networks
seem to be playing a bit of a public relations game, which has agency execs
wondering if they aren't just trying to make these shows seem more popular to
the general public. Putting out press releases that series are being picked up
for a full season will result in stories being written in both the trade press and
the general press, and then picked up on the entertainment news shows. It could
be a case of execs crossing their fingers and thinking, if you build it-with
"it" being good buzz-they will come.

"I do think the
networks might be trying to create a false perception that they are giving
these series full-season orders because they are successful, and that they are
trying to create some illusion that these shows are doing well when they're
not," says Gold. "Or maybe they just have nothing better in development to
replace them with."

Brad Adgate,
senior VP of research at Horizon Media, says the biggest "head-scratcher" is
NBC's The New Normal. "Obviously they hope the numbers will turn
around or they feel the comedies, despite the low numbers, are better than
anything they have in development."

Adgate says if
the ratings on these full-season-ordered sitcoms don't improve, the networks
can schedule them in time periods with lower rating expectations such as Friday
or Saturday night. Or they could air them in place of low-rated reruns of other
series. Or, in NBC's case, the network could also televise the episodes on one
of the other NBCUniversal cable networks, Adgate says.

And that's not
going to make advertisers very happy.

SMGx's
Armando says that while clients are protected with make-goods
for rating shortfalls, "advertisers don't want to be in programs that they didn't
buy or intend to be in. We're not buying a run of schedule ad packages on
broadcast. We are putting together packages with specific shows on specific
nights of the week based on business models of our clients. We can't just take
random make-goods on random nights if the shows we bought under-deliver the
entire season. Picking up series with poor ratings for an entire season runs a
risk of damaging advertisers' strategies on those networks."

But Reilly at
Fox is calling for patience all around, starting with his own network. "For a
while there's been a constant shuffling of shows and an endless churn of
picking shows and then replacing them quickly," he says. "In the past we've cancelled
some shows too quickly."

As far as Ben
and Kate
and The Mindy Project specifically, Reilly says, "These are
shows I believe in and I want to give them time to catch on. I believe in our
Tuesday night comedy strategy and I want to see it through."

Reilly also
recalled history and said that comedies in general take longer to draw
audiences and reach their peak. He cited CBS sitcom The Big Bang Theory
as a comedy that took a few years before it became a breakout hit. And going
back further, he cited Cheers, Seinfeld and Everybody Loves Raymond
as comedies that took more than one season to catch on with audiences before
they became hits.

"Ben and Kate
and The Mindy Project have younger viewers [both have median age
audiences of about 36] and each one needs time on the air to broaden their
viewership and get some more older viewers," Reilly says.

Reilly adds that
one other factor went into the decision to order more episodes of
both the comedy series-comedies are easier to fit in around all the preemptions
that will disrupt viewing patterns on Fox as they do every October, with the
coming of primetime post-season MLB telecasts, including the League Championship
Series and the World Series.

"On top of the
disruptions for post-season baseball, our schedule will also be interrupted by
several presidential and vice presidential debates," Reilly says.

SMGx's Armando
acknowledged that Reilly did say when announcing the new fall schedule that the
network planned to be patient, and that Reilly was firm about wanting to
establish the Tuesday night comedy block, but he added that based on the
ratings of these series right now, Reilly's decision to order full seasons of
each series "is really pushing it."

"I do understand
he wants to be patient with these series, but there's no need to do full-season
orders," Armando says. "Just order a few more episodes and see how they do."

Not
surprisingly, Bader is equally bullish about his NBC series. "I've never heard
of an agency executive complaining about a show staying on a network too long,"
he says, adding that the decision to give full-season orders to the three series
was made because the network believes in the shows creatively, and because they
are all doing better in their time periods than the shows that occupied those slots
last season.

Bader adds that
all the networks are still rolling out season premiere episodes, making any
negative decisions on shows a bit premature. "We don't know what the landscape
will look like several weeks from now," he says.

Bader also said
that from a financial standpoint, it's important that production be continuous
on a series; by allowing it to go on hiatus while waiting to determine if
additional episodes are going to be ordered, it can be expensive to get things
back in gear again.

 

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