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Over-Rated: 5 Reasons We’re Over the Overnights

The first Nielsen numbers of the day don’t mean so much anymore — here’s why

For decades, network executives, showrunners, TV writers and agents have started their day the same way: by poring over the overnight ratings numbers.

And now that they've just passed through their most harrowing time of year — fall premiere week — we'd just like to say one thing: It's time to let it go — and in the same stroke, demand a better metric.

The overnights are all but over.

As the first available data, overnight ratings will always have an allure (and in some cases, the power to cancel a show, as just happened with Fox's "Lone Star" on Tuesday.)

But as DVR enters a second decade, video-on-demand takes off and more viewers migrate online, overnight ratings track a shrinking and less significant part of the total audience, meaning the true impact of any given show is more nuanced than black-and-white.

Unfortunately, our attention to overnight ratings has remained about the same, with little paid to time-shifted data that takes longer to process.

Still not convinced? Here are five reasons why overnight ratings are less relevant than ever:

1. THE DVR

Five years ago, digital video recorders were in 7 percent of U.S. households. They're now in a third of the market. Along with this growth in "time shifted" TV watching, the "Live Plus 7" metric — which adds a week of playbacks — has gained traction among TV executives when making programming decisions.

NBC's "The Office" enjoys among the most dramatic gains among the 18-49 audience, with a more than 40 percent bump in viewers when DVR is factored.

Other shows are catching up. The time-shifted portion of the audience has more than doubled between 2007 and 2010 for many shows, including "The Big Bang Theory," "How I Met Your Mother," "Family Guy," "Gossip Girl" and "The Bachelor."

2. VIDEO-ON-DEMAND

Even waiting seven days for "Live Plus 7" numbers may not be enough — cable outlets like HBO say you can't fully gauge a show like "True Blood" until the VOD ratings come in, sometimes weeks later.

Combined audience from on-demand and encore runs now trumps the initial run of "True Blood" … in fact, for the season two premiere last fall, HBO said only 24 percent of its 12.1 million viewers came from the premiere run.

Since VOD availability varies widely depending on the network and signal carriers, quantifying its impact will remain elusive for some time.

ENCORE! ENCORE! ENCORE!

Cable channels regularly re-air new episodes of shows multiple times during a given week, a model some networks have applied on Friday nights. With audiences spread between initial airings and encore presentations — some of them many days apart — it takes more time to determine total viewership.

"Our advertisers don't care if someone watches 'Sons of Anarchy' on Tuesday or Sunday," FX president John Landgraf told TheWrap last year. "We sell on total impressions."

The result can be dramatic. For instance, for the Sept. 26 season five premiere of Showtime's top series, "Dexter," nearly one quarter of the total audience watched the 11 p.m. encore instead of the initial 9 p.m. broadcast.

4. THE HULUS OF THE WORLD

Yep, convergence is still happening, with Hulu talking IPO, iTunes growing its sales of TV episodes, and huge cable players like Time Warner and Comcast seeding their TV Everywhere initiative.

Like VOD, the internet viewing audience is nascent but growing — Hulu's traffic has spiked 500 percent in the last two years. Overnights, of course, account for neither this phenomenon, nor for the early adopters to mobile TV viewing.

The trouble with online viewers is agreeing on a metric for accurately tracking these early adopters — and then making the same kind of money off of them that traditional viewers bring. We're not anywhere near either right now.

5. THE FOLLY OF FIXATING on 18-49

Even the 18-49 demographic, long a reliable gold standard for measuring average performance, is getting rusty in this realm.

It worked fine in the days of three or four big broadcast networks, but with increasingly specialized programming, not everybody is fixated on 18-49 anymore. The CW? Their main target is women 18-34. ESPN's after men 18-34. TNT likes adults 25-54 … and so on. If they're so focused on hitting those targets, 18-49 doesn't belong in the conversation.