Op-ed: Playing the specialty ratings game

Ratings info in this burgeoning sector of the TVscape is as rare as hen's teeth. Not only do we not know how many people are usually watching Holmes on Homes, neither does Mike Holmes.

A recent press release from HGTV caught my attention. Not so much because of its content – it was about an audience record for the channel, a combined 2+ rating of 650,000 for two airings of the Holmes on Homes special Lien on Me – but because, wow, ratings info on specialty is as rare as hen’s teeth.

Although HGTV likes to promote Holmes on Homes as ‘one of the network’s top-ranked series,’ as a general rule, unless you have a BBM Nielsen subscription, you’ve got no idea what that might translate into in terms of backsides in La-Z-Boys. And that’s pretty much the way it goes for ratings for specialty programming (beyond TSN, with its million-this and million-that). Obfuscation is the norm.

It would be naive to suggest that making heads or tails of ratings numbers is ever clear-cut. When journalists ask about conventional ratings, we expect spin, and we get it. But in conventional TV land, we also usually get some numbers to work with.

Asking for specialty data is another matter. Might as well ask someone about their sexual peccadilloes. Enquiries are routinely deflected – station-wide percentage growth with nothing to compare it to is the standard response – or rejected flat out: ‘We don’t release ratings information.’ And because we’ve accepted the premise that specialty is an entirely different animal from conventional, we meekly acquiesce. It’s specialty. Their program probably brought down dozens of viewers. Poor possums.

And yet, specialty and pay combined have overtaken conventional in ratings, revenue, profit and profit margin. Yes, we’re talking about 90 stations versus six or so, but the fact remains that specialty is a burgeoning, increasingly consolidated end of the business, while conventional – with ratings of 500,000 being the new million – is slipping, or ‘mature,’ as it is usually termed (Leonard Asper heating up the room for Canwest shareholders excepted).

Accordingly, I suggest that, when it comes to ratings data, the time has come to stop treating specialty with kid gloves. There are a significant number of specials, and even series such as Canada’s Worst Driver and Myth Busters (both on Discovery Channel) that routinely pull down comparable numbers to ‘marginal prime time,’ as Inese Korbs of M2Universal calls it. Specialty is no also-ran.

Certainly there are qualifiers. Korbs and other media buyers say there remain a number of programs on Category 2 specialties, and to a lesser extent, on Cat. 1 and conventional channels, that generate so few viewers that it’s impossible to measure them based on the current BBM system. If the audience rating is below 0.5%, it doesn’t make BBM’s reach book. Even Nielsen subscribers have nothing to spin.

In that case, viewership stats are ‘guesstimates’ generated from ‘various formulas,’ according to one Toronto-based media buyer who asked not to be named. ‘We don’t want the client to focus too much on that,’ she admits. ‘It is a bit of an unknown.’ In that case, ad sales tend to be ‘ROS – run of schedule,’ not tied to particular shows, but rather on the channel’s overall demographic skew – a favourite of those whose strategy is cost efficiency.

For others, the numbers are most definitely out there – they’re just closely guarded secrets kept for competitive reasons. Here’s how ridiculous it gets. Not only do we not know how many people are usually watching Holmes on Homes, neither does Mike Holmes. The bosses at HGTV (formerly Alliance Atlantis, now Canwest) do not generally share ratings information, even with the producers of ‘one of the network’s top-ranked series.’ So when Lien on Me bagged more than half a mil in one night, ‘we saw the press release like everyone else,’ says Mike Quast, VP development for Holmes Group, and one of the show’s executive producers. ‘Well, they gave it to us ahead of time as a courtesy,’ he adds, ‘but it’s rare for a broadcaster, and certainly for a specialty network, to hand out numbers for its shows.’

As an alumnus of Alliance Atlantis, Quast can see both sides of that debate. ‘The challenge from the network’s side is you’re trying to manage expectations. The challenge from the independent producer’s side is, it’s really hard to successfully grow a TV show, and in our case a brand, without knowing how well you’re doing.’

This doesn’t run across the board. CBC and CTVglobemedia are quicker to tip their hand than the rest. To my surprise, my enquiry to CTVgm brought an avalanche of data: the top 30 specialties in prime-time and the top 50 most-watched English-language programs, (both of which are dominated by TSN), through to a Comedy Network release about The Jon Dore Television Show and Keys to the VIP as the number two and three originals on the specialty (with averages of 57,000 and 65,000 viewers, respectively). I got the Full Monty.

Sure, there’s spin. But I do believe that releasing the data – at least to the show’s producers – is the smarter way. And given the increasing prevalence of online viewing, and the ease with which producers like Quast can access and analyze those stats – ‘I know exactly who’s watching, by province, by postal code, when they came in and when they left – amazing analytics,’ he says – maybe it won’t make a whole lot of difference for long anyway.

From Playback Daily