TV execs, advertisers in 4-day war over audience-count rules

'4 days: Those are what's at stake in the next great TV-industry battle,' says @scottcollinsLAT

Four days. Those are what's at issue in the next great TV-industry battle.

For the last few years, the networks have gotten paid based on the number of viewers who saw commercials that aired within the first three days of the original telecast.

That means if you scheduled your DVR to record, say, "NCIS" on Tuesday and you finally got around to watching it on Saturday — which is the case for many fans of the show — CBS got exactly this much for your eyeballs: zero.

TV executives are fed up with that. And they're pushing advertisers to pay for all viewers as measured by Nielsen up to a full week after the original airdate. That might sound like inside baseball. But tens of millions of dollars are at stake.

During the 2008-09 TV season, 83% of viewing was done live. This season, it's down to 55% — and analysts expect that to dip to less than half soon. Meanwhile, broadcasters and even cable networks are fighting for their lives alongside hot programming up-and-comers like the video streaming services Netflix and Amazon.

"There's a pretty big distance between the number of people actually consuming the show and the number of people for which you get paid," said FX boss John Landgraf, who has pushed for years for audience measurement that he feels better reflects the number of people watching "Sons of Anarchy" or "American Horror Story."

Even though the vast majority of viewers blow past ads with a DVR, there still may be substantial numbers of Americans who watch commercials the advertisers are essentially getting for free. (About half of all U.S. homes now have a DVR.)

This discrepancy reduces the amount of money the networks have to spend on developing new programs and puts them at a competitive disadvantage to players like Amazon, which sells content directly to consumers and doesn't have to rely on advertising to make ends meet.

Executives see it as an issue of basic fairness.

"What's happening with DVRs and online, we just want it to be counted and get paid appropriately," CBS boss Leslie Moonves said at the Consumer Electronics Show in January. "Whenever you watch our ads, we should get paid."

The matter comes at a crucial time because the networks suffered through a pretty brutal 2014. Broadcast and cable networks earned an estimated $18.1 billion in prime-time ad commitments during last summer's "upfront" market, when the bulk of commercial time is sold. That was down 6% from the previous year, according to research firm Media Dynamics — an ominous sign in a business that once drew healthy annual increases.

At the same time, viewers are being barraged with new original series everywhere they turn. In 2014, there were 352 original scripted series on prime-time TV and cable outlets — a 56% jump in five years, according to research by the cable network FX. And that doesn't include reality programs.

FX's Landgraf says his internal list of all the prime-time shows airing on rival networks is getting more ponderous by the year.

"This year, it was 30 pages long and had over 1,700 programs," he said.

Hence the network push to get paid for every last viewer on existing shows, no matter when they watch.

Executives are already taking matters into their own hands. They have had it with the traditional "overnight" ratings, which simply estimate how many viewers watched a program the night it aired. Last year, FX said it would stop reporting overnight ratings for its series and would offer only numbers for three days and beyond.

Since then, HBO, Showtime, Bravo and other cable networks have followed suit. Since advertisers have access to all the Nielsen data, the reporting change was mostly symbolic. But it may reduce the number of headlines with undercounted viewership numbers, executives say.

Nielsen, which has measured TV ratings since 1950, is racing to keep up with a proposed new system that company officials say will count every viewer, including those on smartphones and tablets.

Networks managed to push through a few deals last year for commercials based on one full week's worth of viewing. But TV executives want the so-called "c7" (for "commercial, seven days") rating to become the standard deal unit from now on, and they will make that case in negotiations with advertisers this spring for the 2015-16 TV season.

Some c7 deals were already made in last year's upfront. And of course the two sides could — and often do — hammer out all kinds of concessions in horse trading. But the networks want to have seven days be the new measurement.

The networks may be in for a battle. Advertisers say the issue isn't so much measurement as it is the sweeping technological changes roiling TV, as they are virtually every other industry. That just means less money for TV.

"The problem for them is that advertisers have so many choices," said Catherine Warburton, chief investment officer at New York media firm Assembly.

Since many advertisers have already cut back on buying newspaper and magazine ads, she said, "the next place to take it is from television." Although network TV is still the top choice to reach millions of consumers at once, many advertisers now prefer to buy digital ads because they can be targeted more precisely and their performance measured more easily than with TV commercials, she added.

Luckily for the TV networks, the issue of getting paid for every last DVR viewer may grow less critical.

The once-explosive growth of DVRs has slowed dramatically, and many experts now don't expect the proportion of American homes with the devices to rise much above 50% any time soon. That's largely because viewers — especially young adults — are more interested in on-demand and streaming options than in DVRs, according to CBS research guru David Poltrack.

Network executives greatly prefer on-demand and streaming because they can easily measure how many viewers watch and can also insert ads that cannot be fast-forwarded. Does that mean networks would like to do away with DVRs?

"Absolutely," Poltrack said.

But until that day comes, networks will have to keep pushing to get as many viewers as possible onto their rosters. And that's a vital quest at the moment, as CBS Entertainment Chairwoman Nina Tassler told reporters in January.

"The value of every single viewer has never been greater," Tassler said.

Twitter: @scottcollinsLAT

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