Why New Shows ‘Limitless,’ ‘Quantico’ and ‘Scream Queens’ Get Longer Time to Prove Themselves

Delayed and digital viewing makes it harder for programmers to judge ratings winners and losers

Sixteen days in, the new fall TV season is still casualty-free.

With delayed and digital viewing now the norm, networks are looking beyond traditional live-plus-same day Nielsen ratings to decide which new series make the cut and which are canceled. But those numbers can take days, sometimes weeks to come in. When they do, they don’t always tell a straightforward story. As a result, programmers are practicing more patience than in past years.

New series such as CBS’ “Limitless,” ABC’s “Quantico” and NBC’s “Heroes Reborn,” meanwhile, are looking a lot better with a few days’ age.

“What all these other options do is slow the process down a little bit,” Kelly Kahl, senior executive vice president, CBS primetime, told TheWrap. “You can still see a big hit or a big miss, but for a vast majority of these shows now, there’s a big middle, and you can’t make a snap judgment. Those judgments now come after you’ve seen reams of data. It comes three days later, a week later, two weeks later.”

That lag time makes networks more deliberative about swinging the ax — and also about making a big commitment. That was evident last fall, when, five weeks after the season’s start “Manhattan Love Story” became the first freshman broadcast show to be canceled.

The year prior, ABC canceled “Lucky 7” just two weeks into the  season. Likewise Fox renewed “Sleepy Hollow” just three weeks into fall of 2013. Last season, no freshman shows were renewed until after the New Year.

So far this fall, no new series have been canceled or renewed. Only one, NBC’s “Blindspot,” which received an order for nine additional scripts, has received any indication about its fate.

“Canceling shows is expensive,” Jeff Bader, president, program planning, strategy and research, NBC Entertainment, told TheWrap. “The threshold for what makes a show successful or not is much lower than what it used to be.”

When you take into account delayed viewing, Bader added, “you know that half of your viewing could be shifted.” So a show that time-shifts has the edge over a similar show that does not.

Fox’s “Rosewood,” for instance, premiered to 2.44 live-plus-same-day rating among adults 18-49, ahead of fellow freshmen “Heroes Reborn” on NBC (1.96) and “Limitless” on CBS (1.87). But the latter two surpassed “Rosewood” once ratings for three days of DVR playback were added.

Digital viewing clouds the picture further. Though younger viewers in particular are spending more time streaming shows, those eyeballs don’t contribute to the same pot of money that TV eyeballs do.

Ads on the networks’ own streaming platforms are sold separately from broadcast ads. And standalone services such as Hulu pay licensing fees to producers, contributing nothing to a network’s ad revenue.

But with networks emphasizing greater synergy with their studio divisions, those digital dollars matter. “Scream Queens” came up short of expectations when it drew 4.0 million viewers on its premiere night. But Fox, which also produces the show, touted the fact that the audience grew 83 percent to 7.3 million after three days of digital and delayed viewing.

Asked by TheWrap Sunday whether “Scream Queens” would be renewable if it continues to meet delayed-viewing projections, Fox Television Group chairman and CEO Dana Walden replied, “Absolutely.”

But the data that networks need to make decisions on shows like “Scream Queens” takes time to gather and can be tough to interpret. Nielsen’s live-plus-three ratings aren’t produced until five days after the premiere. Live-plus-seven ratings take 21 days.

And there is no industry standard yet for a measuring viewers across all platforms. The merger of Nielsen competitors comScore and Rentrak, announced last Tuesday, was hailed as a step toward such a standard.

Nielsen, meanwhile, is touting its forthcoming total-content rating system. But so far there’s no solution to what comScore CEO Bill Livek told TheWrap Tuesday is “a crisis of measurement” in the industry.

The relevance of the live-plus-same day rating, meanwhile, continues to wane. But as much as network executives like to talk about its irrelevance, it’s not going away any time soon.

“You know what? I think everybody likes it,” Kahl said. “Everybody wants the information faster. They don’t want it slower.”