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CBS tops ratings, but don't declare victory over Time Warner yet

Much to the chagrin of 3.2 million Time Warner Cable customers, Nielsen reported Tuesday that CBS finished on top of the ratings for the week of Aug. 5-11. That's the first full week the network was blacked out on Time Warner's systems in Los Angeles, New York, Dallas and a few smaller markets.

Some news outlets reacted to the ratings as if they heralded a win for CBS in its ongoing fight with Time Warner over retransmission fees. But I'm not so sure the needle has moved.

If this were a piece about a campaign poll, I might raise the issue of sampling bias -- that is, the possibility that Nielsen's panels don't have enough members who are Time Warner customers in blacked-out cities to reveal the dispute's true impact. Instead, I'm just going to argue that the  ratings race doesn't really tell the story.

Let's look at the numbers. The 3.2 million Time Warner households that have been cut off from CBS represent less than 3% of the U.S. homes with TVs capable of tuning in a broadcast. Just by way of comparison, Nielsen projects that 5 million U.S. homes will watch TV via the Internet this year instead of cable or satellite.

The average number of prime-time viewers on CBS last week was 5.5 million. According to Tim Kenneally at the Wrap, that's 32% more viewers than CBS' weekly average from the same period in 2012. But viewers' programming choices were different then, so it would be silly to argue that the blackout was somehow helping CBS based on those numbers alone.

What's more likely is that the blackout is costing CBS about what you would expect: something less than 3% of its audience. Two sets of numbers support this hypothesis. First, the 11 p.m. news shows on CBS stations in New York, Los Angeles and Dallas drew a total of about 160,000 viewers, on average, in the early days of the blackout, according to the ratings reported by my colleagues Joe Flint and Meg James last week. And according to Zap2It.com, Nielsen's numbers last week were 100,000 to 300,000 viewers, on average, below the previous two weeks' ratings.

Popular shows ("Under the Dome" in particular) helped buoy the network, drawing non-blacked-out viewers away from rival networks. Runner-up NBC's average audience fell sharply last week to 4.2 million from 5.4 million the previous week. So it's reasonable to expect that CBS' showing would have been even stronger had there been no blackout.

In short, the blackout isn't helping CBS, nor is it likely to be inflicting real pain. That's to be expected, considering the relatively small percentage of TV households caught up in the blackout. Perhaps that's why these disputes always seem to end with the pay-TV operator giving in and the broadcaster collecting the fees it demanded. And subscribers paying for it.

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Follow Jon Healey on Twitter @jcahealey and Google+

Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times
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