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Nielsen Surprise: Network Ratings May Be Higher Than They Appear

By Lisa de Moraes
Thursday, September 27, 2007

One day into the new television season, all hell broke loose in Hollywood over a change in ratings calculations by Nielsen Media Research.

It all started with NBC's second-season debut of "Heroes" on Monday. Did you see NBC's second-season debut of "Heroes"? Well, technically, it's not finished airing yet. NBC will rerun that very episode on Saturday. And because it will have the exact same national commercials -- Nissan was/is the episode's sole sponsor -- Nielsen will take the new Saturday viewers, add them to the show's Monday average and give the Monday "Heroes" a brand-spanking-new rating.

Meanwhile, the Saturday "Heroes" broadcast will vanish in the Land of Nielsen. In fact, Saturday at 8 p.m. on NBC will not exist for this, Premiere Week of the 2007-08 TV season.

Remember how last fall NBC announced its "NBC 2.0" initiative, in which the network said it would broadcast low-cost reality programming in the 8 p.m. hour across the week because the economics of its 8 o'clock ratings didn't merit spending the big bucks on scripted programming?

This is way better.

And it gets better still. Those Saturday "Heroes" viewers also will be used to refigure the network's average for the whole of Monday night.

And with Saturday, NBC's lowest-rated night of the week, now one hour shorter, that, too, will help goose NBC's weekly average for the kickoff week of the season.

And there's more!

Had NBC opted to rerun the "Heroes" season debut with the same Nissan ads on, say, its Sci Fi cable channel, those Sci Fi viewers also would be added to "Heroes" Monday average on NBC, NBC's average for all of Monday night and its average for Premiere Week.

Now, before you roast a peacock in effigy, let's make one thing perfectly clear: NBC is doing nothing out of bounds here. Over the summer, TV ratings wrangler Nielsen let the broadcast networks know about this "new processing option."

Network number crunchers who received the word from Nielsen notified their bosses, whose eyes glazed over. (Except, it would appear, at NBC.) Nielsen folks note this model is not unlike the way Nielsen processes ratings for syndicated programming.

With one important distinction.

In the Nielsen New Processing Option 2.0, the series episode's first broadcast and its second have to have aired in a single calendar week.

This is easy to accomplish if the series airs, oh, say, Monday.

It is likewise not possible to accomplish with a show that airs, oh, say, Sunday, the end of the Nielsen week.

Here's probably a good place to mention that NBC has no Sunday series for the first part of the TV season -- it has football.

ABC, on the other hand, airs three of its more important series on Sunday: "Desperate Housewives," "Brothers & Sisters" and "Extreme Makeover: Home Edition." Sadly, none of them can take advantage of the Nielsen New Processing Option 2.0.

Neither can CBS's new "Viva Laughlin" or returning "Cold Case" or "Shark" -- all on Sunday.

It would seem that Nielsen New Processing Option 2.0 puts shows that air on Sunday night at a disadvantage.

This is, of course, of no concern to NBC, which is playing strictly by Nielsen's rules.

NBC research chief Alan Wurtzel notes, as did execs at other broadcast networks, that getting a bunch of advertisers to all agree to buy the exact same ad time in two broadcasts of one episode in a week is very hard to accomplish and unlikely -- at least this season -- to become a regular occurrence.

(CBS plans to rerun its "Cane" premiere on Saturday and ABC will re-air next Wednesday's "Pushing Daisies" unveiling on Oct. 5, but in both cases the advertisers for the second airing will be different.)

"This was a very special arrangement," Wurtzel told The TV Column of the "Heroes" debut. "The idea that you are able to financially do this on a regular basis seems very impractical."

On the other hand, Wurtzel said, the new option better reflects the way people watch television in "the contemporary media environment."

Nielsen thinks so, too. "It really is part of the ongoing change in the way people watch television and our need to be able to capture and report all of that," Nielsen Vice President Anne Elliot told The TV Column.

Wurtzel wondered why the other networks were crying foul when they've known about Nielsen New Processing Option 2.0 for weeks. Execs at the other networks say it's because they did not know NBC planned to take advantage of NNPO 2.0 until the very last second -- and in Premiere Week, no less.

Also, Nielsen did not notify The Reporters Who Cover Television of this change until Tuesday morning as they were waiting eagerly to see how various shows, including "Heroes," fared on the first night of the TV season.

"The first program to take advantage of this new processing option is 'Heroes' on NBC-TV which aired on Monday September 24, 2007," Nielsen said in its news release announcing the new option, sent to the media on Tuesday September 25, 2007.

How "Heroes" did compared with its first-season unveiling last September, according to early stats, was flat among all viewers (14.1 million, for second place in the hour behind ABC's "Dancing With the Stars") and up 10 percent in the 18-49 demographic that NBC targets, trouncing all time-slot competitors.

Sadly, that got lost in the media's rush to make what-the-heck? calls to Nielsen, to NBC and to the other broadcast networks to find out about this "new processing option."

Meanwhile, over at the other networks, kerfuffle erupted. A regularly scheduled conference call between ABC execs and Nielsen suits turned into a shoutfest. Fox fired off a strongly worded letter to Nielsen yesterday, saying what-the-heck? and reminding it that when Nielsen sent word of this new processing option it said "it is important to note that broadcast networks do not usually repeat program episodes with the same commercials within the same weekly measurement interval."

There's always next season.

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