Sunday, February 24

Counting Beans: Journeyman vs. Friday Night Lights

With E! Online giving hope to Friday Night Lights, a show given every advantage to build an audience over two seasons, and Michael Hinman reinforcing the decision to axe Journeyman, a show given a half season in what has become NBC’s dead zone timeslot (as fans of The Black Donnellys know), some people are wondering if Nielsen ratings really mean anything.

After all, these two shows, on the same network, rack up about the same ratings. Unless, of course, you only count select beans.

The decision to cancel Journeyman had less to do with ratings and whether or not people watched the show and more to do with the financials of a hurting network, according to an unexpected source close to the show.

Unfortunately for the fans, this means all the Rice-A-Roni on the planet is unlikely to change any minds at the network. In fact, the only reason ratings have been factored into the conversation is because that is how critics guess at network decisions. And sometimes, networks use these numbers to justify their decisions.

Why are Nielsen numbers only sometimes important? According to Nielsen: There are 5,000 households in the national People Meter sample, approximately 20,000 households in the local metered market samples, approximately 1,000 metered homes for our national and local Hispanic measurement, and nearly 1.6 million diaries are edited each year.

In other words, on Nielsen’s best day, we can expect less than 2 percent of all television households to be sampled, which doesn’t even consider how many people lie (if you were a Jericho fan, chances are you would say you watched it, even if you did not). Or, in yet other words, Nielsen only sounds good when someone like Hinman writes it up like this. Ho hum.

Don’t get me wrong, Hinman is a great guy and he presents a sound argument for the validity of Nielsen as critics want you to believe because they use these numbers to predict the fate of television. However, as someone with a foot in advertising, I do make media buy recommendations from time to time. There are a number of factors well beyond audience reach to consider.

Sometimes these other factors are simple. It makes sense to buy news for political candidates because people who watch the news tend to vote. Sometimes these other factors are about who else buys it. That’s why I recommended a water purifier company NOT buy 20 some radio spots on a station dominated by his competitor, complete with host endorsements. And sometimes these other factors might be about product placement, which is why Ford bought Knight Rider sight unseen.

And sometimes, it has to do with experience. Experience is why, years ago, I heavily recommended a local Ham Supreme retailer to place a good portion of its media buy on an unproven pilot program. The agency I was working for balked at the idea, insisting we buy a high frequency cable rotate instead. The result: Ham Supreme ran heavily at 3 a.m. in the morning instead of on a show that eventually climbed to number one. Why did I want the pilot? Psychographics suggested Home Improvement viewers might like big ham sandwiches.

My point is that the rating system has become little more than a tool to push perception instead of reality. How far from reality? Far enough from reality that when a show like Jericho, for example, is placed in a setting where every viewer is tracked, like TiVo viewers or iTunes downloads, it comes close to the top and looks more viable.

I could have made the same iTunes comparison for Journeyman or Friday Night Lights, but for all of NBC’s smart moves toward digital media, it nixed selling shows on iTunes last Sept. in favor of a platform that doesn’t work on the market's dominant smart phone. When Journeyman was there; it did okay.

No matter, the networks and studios know all this, which is why Warner Bros. is testing emerging technology; advertisers are looking to the net; and networks have any number of initiatives that are not connected to the rating system. (Hat tip: Jane Sweat.) Add all this up and ...

Nielsen isn’t nearly as relevant today as it once was and everybody knows it, but few will admit it. While that doesn’t mean it won’t be relevant in the future, it certainly means its primary relevance is a matter of convenience. It’s easy to blame the ratings or bypass them on any given Sunday, like today.

So why was Journeyman cancelled? Look at the ratings and it seems to make sense, but the truth seems to be about budget. Why might Friday Night Lights be saved? The lower-budget show has critics who love to write about it and advertisers who like the psychographics.

Ho hum. Ratings smateings. Let's shoot for the truth.

As more entertainment becomes available on the net, more people will be turning to the net more often. Advertisers tend to want to be where people might learn about and buy their products. And networks tend to want to be where the advertisers want to be. Businesses that already have a Web presence in, um, social media, will be able to engage more people as opposed to simply slicing up their budgets across multiple media streams.

Networks and publishers will eventually win in this world too. For example, more people read The New York Times today than ever before. They made their decision after counting all the beans, not just the red ones. Advertising hasn't caught up, but it will. Bank on it.

So maybe what needs to be asked is this: in a world where analytics are pure, where's the need for Nielsen? Hinman says they'll measure everything in about five years. Five years? That's too late, considering I know how many people visit this blog without them.

Yeah, I know, media convergence seems so silly to so many people. But then again, these folks used the same arguments before: companies do not need Web sites; people will never use electronic mail; and Apple will never break into the phone market, let alone allow someone like me to connect my phone to my television and watch Supernatural. Right, none of those things will happen either.



Sweet Tea on 2/24/08, 2:47 PM said...

One of your best posts ever Rich. I can't say it enough- we all want to be counted!

When is Rich Becker Day? Let's have a parade with elephants and peanuts!

SaveJake on 2/24/08, 3:09 PM said...

Today is Rich Becker Day!
The party has begun at my are all envited!!!
Rich you just wrote everything I've been discussing way too much for the past few days to everyone that will listen. Funny thing is, they all agree and are very tired of the networks telling them what they like. Is there an audience for Jericho? Is that a real question....Does CBS not see the answer without looking at Nielsen?!
The last couple of days have been ridiculous with 'rumor'.
Seeing the facts as stated above...What a breath of fresh air.
I thank you very much.
You Rock!

Debby on 2/24/08, 4:14 PM said...

Rich, Thanks so much for addressing this situation. The saddest part of all of this discussion is that what drives television is not whether or not a show is good but whether or not the right people are watching it. At least that is how it used to be. Now ratings aren't worth the money spent to calculate them. I believe that in today's world people don't want to be sampled. Voting exit polls are getting less and less reliable. The method hasn't changed but who answers and how they answer has. As long as networks and critics rely on Neilsens people are going to be denied good programing based on the past. Young people today aren't willing to wait for market to catch up to them. They embrace change even if that change is only a temporary stop on the way to a bigger change. If product marketers don't figure that out they continue to throw away good money. Good television shows are discared because of unreliable data until a better way to measure market share is determine.

Anonymous said...

Bloody well right, Rich. Now, here's the 40,000-pounds-of-nuts question: Will CBS renew Jericho, which by every measure other than Nielsen (xBox, iTunes, TiVo, Amazon Unbox Video, Innertube, and yes, illegal downloads) clearly has more than enough viewers to continue, or will the King of Old Media once again prevail?

Here's a quote from a friend of mine addicted to Jericho: "Why should I watch it on the network when I have other, superior delivery systems?"

He's right, of course, and CBS (if it drops Jericho again) is wrong. I think this is the tipping point for network television. Those who cannot adapt will surely be left behind.


Anonymous said...

Looking at my cable bill, at this point if the local news was live streamed, I would have it shut off and just keep the high speed internet. For the handfull of shows I watch I could save money by buying them off itunes. Half the time the tv is on for noise and I have plenty of nice cd's for that.

I agree about the tipping point. I'm actually keeping a list of what I actually watch and how much I would miss if the cable was off. If it looks like there isn't the megabucks it cost I well may cut it back to their "local only" option. I could miss the few shows I watch on USA (which does not provide its shows live streamed) or see if they are available on itunes.

The full screen high def screen on my laptop has a much better picture anyway.

Yes, the tipping point is here, if not for Jericho for something else. Should CBS not pick it up, or perhaps not allow it to be shopped around, I will make sure it isn't forgotten as the poster show for why the old network system is dead dead dead.

erika on 2/24/08, 10:27 PM said...

You know, back in the early 80s, my family got the Neilsen diarys to track our viewing habits for a month. Since my parents could have cared less, and they knew I liked to fill out forms (I was weird kid), they let me fill out the diarys for the two televisions we had at the time. I was an ardent surfer at the time, and I filled out those diarys with shows that I liked, but not necessarily watched all the way through. Since then, I have known that the Neilsen ratings were based on the whim of whomever felt the need to see acertain show succeed. And I also know that people will report what they think will make them 'look good', instead of what they really watch.

And in the ensuing years, we all know that the 'New' generation watches TV anyway they damn please. Downloads, iPods, iTunes, streaming, etc. are the new ways of seeing the shows we like, and those means don't show up on the Neilsen radar.

Hopefully, the Networks will wise up, and start seeing that watching TV 'live' is a thing of the past, and re-jigger their evaluation of eyes on the shows to our favor.

Anonymous said...

judist63 here, I must also say that with my cable bill, it would probably be cheaper to watch on itunes or just thru my pc on innertube than to keep my cable company fed. It is only because of Jericho that I watch live tv anyway! Thank you Rich for staying on top of this!

Anonymous said...

Did you know with an S-video cord everything you download can be viewed on your tv. I got rid of cable a long time ago. I save over $1000/yr because of it. I spend about $6-8 a week for the shows I like. It is superior quality and I can watch the video file over and over. I will never go back to conventional viewing.

Rich on 2/25/08, 1:41 PM said...

All of these comments contain some very excellent points about the future of entertainment, including a few I have not considered, like something as simple as an S-video cord.

One of my colleagues likes to remind me that convergence will not work because the Internet could not handle 111 million households watching streaming television (ie. HBO crashed over the Sopranos finale), but I disagree because information is becoming more compact. More importantly, it doesn't consider the viewing habits of people. We almost never watch the same things online at the same time just like not everyone visits the same forum at the same time.

Also, I don't know if anyone else caught it, but ABC is moving toward an OnDemand services, which would ensure everyone is counted. The only catch is that you will not be able to fast-forward commercials.


SaveJake on 2/25/08, 1:59 PM said...

ABC offers OnDemand in my area with select shows. The commercials are limited and far less than what they have online. ABC online I found annoying because of the length and frequency of their commercials. Their OnDemand is much better!
The problem with OnDemand is not all cable companies offer it on network stations. As far as I know, DirectTV does not have OnDemand either.
Remind your friend that even OnDemand goes down on the weekends when there's nothing on and the weather is bad...although if you try every 10 - 15 minutes, you will catch a fresh feed. Then it works again. Our computers do the same!
But we are an on demand society, so a few minutes seems like forever...put a VCR tape in and hit FF or RW....Thank God for the DVD. What did we ever do?!!!

Anonymous said...

great! thanks very much for sharing!

HoustonGal7 on 2/26/08, 11:37 PM said...

Hi Rich, a lurking fan here. I love your column and always find it facinating and informative! I have been spreading the news of New Media at the Jericho Message boards and fully believe it is happening now! Please check out this article if you haven't already:

I especially found this interesting!

"Quincy Smith, who runs CBS' new media division, says the size of the audiences on Veoh are getting close to what some shows are receiving on broadcast television. While he declined to cite specifics, he said the post-apocalyptic drama Jericho has a bigger online audience than it does on traditional TV."

Cheers Rich!

Anonymous said...

Thanks for this post and the info on Journeyman. This may be a bit of confirmation for something I've suspected for awhile now...that the decision to 'can' J/Man may have been about cost rather than ratings. I remember hearing that the show tested better than any other pilot to date...but was expensive to produce. (I could go on and on with suggestions on how to cut costs without sacrificing the quality of this particular show, but I doubt NBC is listening!).
Anyway, thanks for the post and let's hope (those of us who would like to see this show again) that we are wrong!

Anonymous said...

Interesting. Guess what I watch doesn't matter...Oh, wait......mine is one of the 5000 national metered homes. Guess it does matter.....No, wait. It doesn't cause nobody thinks I'm representative. But, doesn't statistics have anything to say about this? Maybe I shouldn't watch. I'm so confused.

Rich on 4/17/08, 8:59 AM said...

@a nielsen viewer,

Yep. Statistics say that statistics lie. :)

Look, I think it great that you take the time to participate as a Nielsen family. But in terms of being representative, it doesn't hold up beyond the pitch that convinced you to be a Nielsen family. If you asked all your neighbors what they watch, I doubt any of them would be a match, making your participation only representative of you, not that there is anything wrong with that. 5,000 does not provide an accurate picture of the viewing public.

That is not the Nielsen family's fault. That is a direct reflection of skewed accounting adopted by one company. So sure, keep watching what you watch.



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