Up all night to get ratings?

Checking in with broadcast and media execs on the current value of overnight ratings and the changes that need to be made to the system.
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In the high-stakes TV business, overnight ratings have long been the little white ball whirling around the seasonal roulette wheel. What demo will a show land on? Was the right bet placed? How much do stakeholders stand to lose or win?

Immediate gratification of the most addictive kind, overnights were once the first and best indicator of a show’s success, capturing all the measured audience that tuned into a show on its scheduled day, time and date. The impact of an overnight rating can have dire consequences: low ratings mean reduced advertiser interest and less revenue for the broadcaster. In the worst-case scenario, overnights can spell doom for a show on the bubble.

But is the overnight really the bellwether it used to be for non-sports television? And are traditional ratings even capturing key demos like millennials?

To quote every network executive on the planet, people now watch TV programming where and when they want. In some cases, a show can double its overnight rating through the week. In response, BBM Canada has updated its weekly Top 30 Programs list from overnights (live viewing plus same-day PVR playback) to a seven-day cume (live viewing plus seven days of PVR playback) in order to better capture “catch-up” viewing.

Phil King, president of programming and sports at CTV, says seven-day numbers are ultimately the ones that the broadcaster bases its business decisions on. Still, he admits, Bell Media is as guilty as the next media co of rushing out overnight ratings statements for big hits.

“The media agencies and clients obviously want to know how shows are doing right away as well like we do, but everyone is slowly being conditioned to not jump the gun and to wait on the total viewership numbers,” he says.

The importance of overnights varies by genre and timeslot, says Barb Williams, SVP of content, Shaw Media.

“We find 10 p.m. shows and the heavy serialized shows are PVR’d a bit more,” she says. “You rarely see the competition and reality shows PVR’d. And you get to know the patterns, you know when you see overnight numbers for Survivor then that is pretty much it and you won’t get a big bump from confirmed numbers. But you know when you see overnights for The Blacklist you’re going to pick up a couple points from the confirmed numbers.”

On the advertising side, Nicole Brown, director of broadcast activation at Toronto-based media agency Carat, says a balance of both sets of data is necessary.

“We know overnights can reflect appointment viewing or a social connection via Twitter or other social networks, which can get buried in seven-day numbers. However studies have shown there has not been a significant impact on an ad’s ‘opportunity to see’ potential,” she says. “Therefore a balance of both sets of data is necessary, and the weighting will depend on the objectives of the campaign and the passion points of the target.”

The shift from appointment viewing – and its impact on overnight ratings – is less of an issue, execs say, than Canada’s lack of effective, single-source cross-platform viewership measurement.

To put it plainly, no one really knows how many people watch a show across every medium on which it’s available.

“The frustration with overnight ratings and ratings in general is that it fails to incorporate non-TV platforms such as set top box VOD and all online options,” says Hayden Mindell, VP of television programming and content at Rogers Media. “There isn’t a consistent system and that is ridiculous. We should have had the system in place three years ago. We are driving people to digital but we don’t have a way of cumulating the linear numbers with the digital numbers.”

This is a particular problem with millennials (14- to 33-year-olds), which is not only a desirable demo for advertisers, but is also TV’s future audience.

Heavy consumers of cross-platform media, this demo is “not measurable with any precision using syndicated tools,” says Tim Hughes, SVP and client service director at Mediacom Canada. With a single-source measurement option lacking for all video mediums, media agencies cobble together solutions in-house, using a range of tools and services.

It’s less of a problem with older audiences for now – Shaw’s Barb Williams says 90% of the ‘caster’s audience still watches programming live – but she acknowledges it will become more important as cross-platform becomes more entrenched in people’s lives.

“We need to be actively working to see how we can measure audiences across other platforms because the biggest challenge we are having is not keeping people watching shows – they love shows,” she says. “The challenge is to be sure we can measure those audiences accurately and we need to be putting a much bigger emphasis on that piece.”

She anticipates change in the measurement space will come in the next year or two, adding there is a big push going into creating better cross-platform measurement from all parties involved.

“All broadcasters need to get in and make this change together.”

The value of overnights

Rosemary Cooper, group director of video and audio activation at media agency ZenithOptimedia, breaks down what types of programming still warrants “overnights” anxiety.

Brand integrations and sponsorships:
For media agencies, overnights are critical for Canadian-produced formats (i.e. Big Brother Canada, MasterChef Canada) in which a client is heavily invested. The quick feedback allows tweaks based on viewership.

Super Bowl and other live events:
This type of “PVR proof” programming gets agencies and clients clicking the “open” button in their email inboxes, because numbers aren’t likely to move from the original overnight reports.

New fall and mid-season programming:
Did the gamble pay off? As Phil King, president, programming and sports at CTV says, “people want their Christmas gifts early” and will check overnight numbers the first few weeks into the new seasons of a show.

Originally published in Playback