October 25, 2013

THE SKED: Ratings That Mean Something… and Ratings That Don’t


Every Sunday now, the networks issue press releases to celebrate the giant gains made by shows during the full week following their initial airing, ratings known as “L7.”  Armed with numbers from a couple of weeks earlier, they crow–perhaps “scream” is a better verb–about this series adding millions of viewers, and that one increasing its rating by 50% or more.  While it’s not strictly accurate to call these numbers flat-out meaningless (they have value in terms of analyzing potential for growth, likely ancillary strength and demo appeal), they add not a penny to network pockets.

Put another way, the economic value of L7 viewers is roughly equivalent as that of viewers on Mars.

Or:  L7 viewers are the trees that fall in the forest when no one is there, and the answer to the age-old question is that they make no sound.

Or:  a network boasting about the L7 numbers for a given series is like a baseball team thrilled by the home runs hit by a player it traded away a season ago.

The only measurement with substantive meaning to the networks is C3, which counts the viewers who, within 3 days of initial air, watch the commercials included within a show.  Anyone who watches in that 72-hour period and fast-forwards is invisible to advertisers.  History has told us that C3 numbers are very close to the overnight numbers reported here and elsewhere each day, but because the C3 numbers are so important, they’re rarely made public.

Ad Age has done a valuable service by getting its hands on some real-world, current C3 numbers (via the Carat advertising agency) and printing them, and they’re instructive.  The highest bump between same-day viewing (of, once again, the show with commercials included) belongs to NEW GIRL, which in the week of Sept 30 rose about 16%–a far cry from its 69% bump in L7.  THE BLACKLIST, which had a giant 53% ump in L7 that–because its base of viewers is larger to begin with–meant the highest increase in viewers on all of television, by 6 million, was only up 11% in C3.  Among other new series, BROOKLYN NINE-NINE was up 12%, AGENTS OF SHIELD rose 11%, and both SLEEPY HOLLOW and HOSTAGES increased 10%.  So assuming the same bumps this past week, Blacklist would be up 0.3 to 3.3, Brooklyn would get to 1.8, SHIELD and Sleepy both to 3.0 and Hostages to 1.3.  In fact, Ad Age reports that some shows, including hits like NCIS and MODERN FAMILY, actually decline (probably modestly) between same-day and C3, because the total number of additional viewers is exceeded by the number who fast-forward through the commercials.

In other words, there’s not much difference at all.  Nothing that would change a network’s decision about whether to renew or cancel a series, much less cause a revision in programming philosophy.  Perhaps some time in the future, advertisers will begin paying for L7 viewers, even at a discount–certainly the networks’ PR campaign to make it seem like the current state of the medium requires payment for those viewers is meant to put pressure on the agencies and their clients.  But until then, L7 numbers are a mere curiosity, with little if any practical weight.

About the Author

Mitch Salem
MITCH SALEM has worked on the business side of the entertainment industry for 20 years, as a senior business affairs executive and attorney for such companies as NBC, ABC, USA, Syfy, Bravo, and BermanBraun Productions, and before that, at the NY law firm of Weil, Gotshal & Manges. During all that, he has more or less constantly been going to the movies and watching TV, and writing about both since the 1980s. His film reviews also currently appear on and In addition, he is co-writer of an episode of the television series "Felicity."