The 7-Day Solution: How Networks Are Moving On From ‘Irrelevant’ Overnight Ratings

The Big Four believe that overnight numbers don’t really matter anymore — and they want the rest of the world to believe it too

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CBS is breaking out the crystal ball when it comes to ratings.

The network announced on Thursday that, when its 2014-2015 season kicks off on Monday, it will include projections for Live + 7 ratings, which take into account viewers who watched a program when it originally aired and over the next seven days in time-shifted viewing, in its daily ratings reports.

Also read: Fox COO Joe Earley: Why He Isn’t Panicking About Low-Rated Premieres

CBS isn’t the only one looking toward the future where ratings are concerned. Fox has been offering Live+7 projections with its ratings breakdowns for the past year.

The networks’ decision to include projected ratings might seem to be of little significance — after all, they’re merely predictions, which may or may not turn out to be accurate. But it is a sign of the increase in time-shifted viewing, and how it affects the networks’ bottom line.

Also read: FX: Let’s All Be More Patient About Ratings

While traditionally, advertising rates have relied on same-day ratings, the increasing presence of DVRs has been gradually changing the formula. In recent years, C3 data — the equivalent of Live + 3 Day ratings — has factored into advertising rates, with C7 data — the equivalent of Live + 7 Day ratings — also creeping into the equation.

A Significant Ratings Swing

The difference can be significant. A May 2014 episode of the CBS drama “Person of Interest,” for instance, logged 10.499 million total viewers in Live + Same Day numbers. When Live + 7 Day is factored in, the episode drew 14.489 million total viewers, a 38 percent boost. Meanwhile, at NBC, both “The Blacklist” and “Grimm” enjoy delayed viewing lifts of 45 percent.

Also read: Top 20 TV Ratings: Yep, It’s Football Season

In CBS’s announcement of its new reporting system, CBS Corporation president and CEO Les Moonves said that C7 deals played a “significant” part in the network’s upfront negotiations with advertisers this year, and the trend won’t be reversing itself anytime soon.

“L7 and C7 are the metrics that more accurately account for how viewers watch our shows and how we get paid for our programming — both in advertising and content licensing,” Moonves said. “C7 deals were a significant part of our upfront negotiations this year, and we are doing more and more C7 deals all of the time. As new technologies continue to improve audience measurement across all platforms, these more precise metrics are becoming the industry standard, benefiting advertisers and content providers alike.”

Other Networks’ Approaches

CBS and Fox aren’t alone in the push to give more weight to time-shifted viewing in ratings data. Earlier this year, FX made the decision to not release ratings information until Live + 3 data is available, while ABC told TheWrap that the network has been including Live + 7 notes and projections for returning shows at the beginning of the season for the past few years, and will continue to do so. Beginning this season, NBC will also include Live + 3 projections.

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Alan Wurtzel (pictured at left), president of research and media development for NBC Universal, called the overnight ratings “irrelevant” in this age of time-shifted viewing.

“The live [plus] same day number is just becoming irrelevant. So much consumption in this new world is taking place post that first day,” Wurtzel told TheWrap.

David Poltrack, chief research officer for CBS Corporation, told TheWrap that introducing the L+7 projections is particularly important as the networks go into premiere mode, when people are “trying to pick the winners and call the losers.” Poltrack noted a particular example that will play out on Monday, when the series premiere of CBS’s “Scorpion” airs on the same night as the season premiere of “The Voice.” While “The Voice” may very well score higher when the overnight numbers are released, “Scorpion” will likely have a higher time-shift lift, since dramas tend to do better with time shifting than reality competitions.

Can Ratings Projections Be Trusted?

While the projections for established shows are based on a number of factors, including the previous season’s pattern and word-of-mouth on a particular show or episodes, new offerings such as “Scorpion” have no such historical data to draw on. In those cases, Poltrack said, the network will rely on a large panel of viewers who have undergone program and promotion testing in the past. According to Poltrack, CBS will receive approximately 4,000 online survey responses daily from panel members, detailing what they watched and how they watched it.

Joe Earley, COO of Fox, told TheWrap that his network will base its projections for new shows on the time period and the performance of shows in a similar genre.

Of course, television reporters with a deadline to meet will still, for the foreseeable future, base their ratings stories on overnight numbers. Asked whether CBS hopes that the projections might help color ratings reportage, Poltrack conceded that such a possibility is a way off for now.

“We have to establish credibility, so we don’t expect people to report these numbers are fact,” Poltrack said, adding that much will depend on whether the network’s projections match reality when the Live + 7 data is eventually released. CBS, he added, “will be fine tuning this as we go along and adjusting as necessary.”

Earley also doesn’t expect to see ratings stories informed by the Live + 7 projections anytime soon. One problem, he noted, is that so far, only Fox — and now CBS — are providing the forecasts, which doesn’t exactly set the stage for balanced reporting.

Daily News Coverage May Change

However, Earley did suggest that, if the other networks come on board and the projected numbers prove reliable over time, they could provide an added layer to ratings coverage.

“We understand the challenges. Ratings are a time sensitive story. You’re not getting the projections from all of us, so that’s why we were very happy to see CBS come on board,” Earley said. “If the day comes where all the majors are giving them to you and all of our expectations pretty much align, then hopefully whoever is writing is going to create that context for viewers.”

Whether television journalists find a way to gracefully incorporate the networks’ projections into their coverage, one thing seems clear: Time-shifted viewing isn’t likely to do anything but grow in the future. As will the networks’ efforts to emphasize its impact on ratings.

“The adoption of new technologies and the fundamental changes in the behavior of the viewer are things that are driving all of these things — and they’re not going backwards,” Wurtzel said.