On Jan. 24, 2016, Fox will present the first new episode of sci-fi cult hit “The X-Files” in nearly 14 years. Premiering after the always high-rated NFC Championship Game, it’s likely to be one of the most watched TV episodes of the season.
But don’t expect Fox to celebrate on Jan. 25. Fox Television Group Co-chairmen Dana Walden and Gary Newman have decided they will no longer circulate “fast national” or “overnight” ratings, the data from Nielsen that estimate the size of the audience that watched or played back a prime-time show the night before.
There will be no more ratings press releases from Fox about the previous night’s programs, unless the network airs a live event where delayed viewing is less of a factor. Fox show producers and stars looking for the numbers will have to call someone else.
Fox is the first broadcast network to hold back on reporting the numbers. Walden and Newman wrote in a letter released by Fox that it’s time to “change the conversation” about ratings since so much viewing occurs from DVR playback, video on demand and online streaming platforms – “none of which are included in Nielsen’s fast nationals.”
In the 2015-16 TV season, the rating in the advertiser-coveted audience of 18- to 49-year-olds for Fox’s regularly scheduled programming goes up 44% when three days of DVR playback is added in, the highest percentage of the major broadcast networks.
“Fox is a company that has always prided itself on being forward-thinking,” Walden and Newman wrote, “…and nothing could be more antiquated than a decades-old measurement that reflects only a portion of our audience.”
Fox’s pronouncement generated a few snickers among competitors, some of whom privately suggested they would likely not have made such a move if it had better overnight ratings to tout for its series outside of the still-potent “Empire.”
One rival executive said, “Feel free to call me if you need Fox’s numbers,” which will still be available to other Nielsen customers.
But one executive at another network, who was not authorized to discuss the matter publicly, said it was conceivable that his outlet could take the same stance as Fox at some point.
All of the competitors acknowledged they have discussed ways to wean the industry and the press off the habit of using overnight ratings to declare shows instant winners or losers before the additional audience can be included.
“It’s a good conversation to push forward,” said Chris Ender, spokesman for CBS Corp. “The content monetization universe is changing and we all need to evolve the discussion and metrics to a place that accurately reflects the full value of a show’s audience.”
For good reason. The networks can charge advertisers for the additional audience that watches on a delayed basis. While they don’t get paid for the viewers who fast-forward through the commercials of shows on their DVRs, the overall total of people who watch adds value to a series when it’s sold to international broadcasters or streaming services such as Amazon or Netflix. CBS’ biggest new hit of the season, “Limitless,” sees its audience grow by 78% when seven days of viewing are added to its initial airing on the network.
“You can’t look at the TV ratings like you looked at it even a few short years ago,” CBS Corp. Chairman and CEO Leslie Moonves recently told Wall Street analysts.”Overnight ratings mean nothing. You don’t get real results for three weeks.”
Moonves’ network has been the most aggressive about getting advertisers to make deals based on viewers’ exposure to their commercials over seven days of DVR and video-on-demand playback. Fox also says that half of its ad deals are now based on the seven-day numbers.
Still, it will require patience to change one of the most ingrained habits in the TV industry. Network executives on the West Coast are known to wake up in the morning and reach for their mobile devices to check the previous night’s ratings before they shower or have their coffee.
Advertising buyers also believe the live plus same day ratings are still useful to their business.
“It still serves as a guide as to how a show is ranked on a given night or how it performed versus last season,” said Billie Gold, vice president and director of programming research for Amplifi US.
Journalists who cover the TV industry are also used to having data to dissect the day after a show premieres. Television ratings website TVByTheNumbers.com responded to Fox’s edict by stating it will continue to report the network’s fast national numbers every day. The Hollywood trade press continues to report on Fox’s data as well.
There is precedent for altering the ratings discussion in the press. During the early 1990s, ABC and NBC pushed reporters to cover how their shows performed among 18- to 49-year-olds. At the time, a show’s popularity was measured by how many households were tuned in. But ABC and NBC noted that the rating for the demographic group represented the audience Madison Avenue paid for and largely decided a show’s chances for survival. CBS initially resisted the shift as it had the high household ratings, thanks to the strength of older-skewing hits such as “60 Minutes” and “Murder, She Wrote.” But eventually, CBS touted its competitive position among younger viewers too.
The current TV business is dependent on other sources of revenue besides advertising. But for now, Fox will be out alone among the broadcast networks that won’t quickly disseminate the ratings (cable networks FX and USA have stopped issuing them, waiting until they have figures that include three days of delayed viewing of its shows).
Will Fox be able to hold back if the data contain good news about “The X-Files” return? The truth is out there.