October 11, 2011

The Sked: Time Zones & Their Impact on Ratings and Programming

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Written by: Mitch Metcalf
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In addition to region (Northeast, Midwest, South and West), time zone is a very important geographic classification for television ratings analysis.  Almost half of the population (47.4%) lives in the Eastern time zone, while 29.0% call Central home, 17.1% live in the Pacific time zone, and 6.5% live in the relative obscurity of the Mountain time zone.  These numbers have barely moved in five years: Eastern down 0.4%, Central up 0.3%, Pacific unchanged, and Mountain up 0.1%. 
Don’t forget the middle!  A full third of the country (the 35.5% in the Central and Mountain time zones) are annoyed or even angered when an announcer (or this website in a post) doesn’t state a program start time as “Tonight at 9 pm/ 8 Central”.  You have been warned. 

An Eastern tilt. 
It also means a full three-quarters of the population (the 76.4% living in the Eastern and Central time zones) watch primetime television on the same, initial feed of programs.  For most primetime broadcast programs, the Mountain time zone receives a second feed one hour later, and the Pacific time zone receives a third feed three hours later.  
Fast Nationals, Time Zones and Live Events.  Each morning, the fast national ratings assume this normal broadcast feed pattern for each program.  When we see the fast nationals, they are almost always either equal to or only one-tenth of a rating point away from the final number published in the official nationals later in the afternoon.  If a program follows this normal feed pattern and if local stations carry the show in the intended time period (which happens the vast majority of the time), the fast national rating is very accurate.   
However, when a LIVE program is broadcast (live sports event, a live awards show, major news coverage or election results), the fast national ratings are prone to error, mainly because of the Pacific time zone, where the ratings for the live telecast are three hours off.  The final rating for a live show can go up several tenths to a full point or more from the fast national number.  Why is this?  Let’s look at a fairly representative example. 
Assume a football game aired between 8 and 11 pm ET (7-10 pm CT).  In the Pacific time zone, the game was seen from 5 to 8 pm PT, completely outside the definition of primetime.  In the Mountain time zone, the game aired from 6 to 9 pm MT, which is slightly outside that area’s 7-10 pm primetime.  Now, let’s say (for simplicity) the game did a 6 rating in each time zone with Adults 18-49.  When Nielsen runs the fast “affiliate-based” nationals the next morning, it would find a 6 rating in the 76% of the country living in the Eastern and Central time zones.  So far so good. 
But when the fast nationals are run for the Pacific time zone, the computers would be looking at 8-11 pm PT (after the game was over).  The ratings during those hours would be a collection of local programs and perhaps a network-supplied repeat hour to fill the time on the West Coast.  Let’s say all of those programs averaged a 2 rating in the West.
Finally, in the Mountain time zone (6.5% of the US), two hours of its primetime would have a 6 rating for the game, while the third hour would be a local program (maybe around a 2.5 rating).  In that case, 7-10 pm MT (the time the fast nationals assume is primetime there) would average a 4.8 rating. 
Put all of those numbers together (a 6.0 rating in 76.4% of the US, a 4.8 in 6.5%, and a 2.0 in 17.1%) and Nielsen would come up with a 5.2 rating nationally in the fast nationals for the “normal” feed pattern time period.  Later in the day, Nielsen would adjust each time zone to the actual local start and end times for the game and come up with the correct 6.0 program rating nationally (a fairly typical 0.8 bump for a live event).
If a West Coast team is playing in the football game, the fast-to-official-nationals bump would be even higher.  Simply put, one of the broadcast’s home markets (with a local demographic rating in the high double digits) is completely removed from the preliminary rating in the morning when a Pacific time zone team is involved.  If Los Angeles ever lands an NFL team again, the fast national rating for games involving the new team will be especially inaccurate because of the market’s massive size.
While we are on the topic of fast national ratings and football, a significant error is introduced on Monday’s with ESPN’s Monday Night Football.  The NFL sells local over-the-air broadcast rights to the two markets playing in the game each week.  If a local network affiliate broadcasts the game, it will inflate the network’s fast national ratings for its Monday programs.  For example (from October 10, 2011), WXYZ (ABC) in Detroit broadcast the Bears-Lions game that ESPN aired nationally on cable (and delayed Dancing with the Stars until about 2 am).  The next morning, the fast nationals picked up the much higher rating for the football game in primetime in the Detroit area.  (Chicago is not an issue in this case because the game was carried locally in the Windy City on an independent UHF station.)  When the precise program ratings were produced in the official nationals later in the day, the Detroit viewing of the game would be replaced by the late night viewing of Dancing and the official program rating for Dancing would go down from the fast national time period number.      
Time zones and the big sporting events.  Ideally, a World Series or a Super Bowl or an NCAA Basketball Championship features balance in terms of time zone and region to attract as many people as possible to the set.  This year for example, three of the four teams in the two League Championship Series hail from the Central time zone (the Milwaukee Brewers, St Louis Cardinals and Texas Rangers).  The fourth (the Detroit Tigers) is technically in the Eastern time zone, but it is after all representing the Central Division of the American League and is considered a Midwestern market.    
An extreme example of an imbalanced World Series occurred in 1989 when two teams from the same market (the San Francisco Giants and the Oakland A’s) faced off.  Aside from a major earthquake that disrupted the Series for several days, this low-rated match-up was jinxed by several factors:
·        No high-profile, marquee teams like the Boston Red Sox, Philadelphia Phillies and especially New York Yankees
·        No teams from the Northeast, where baseball was born and where fans are most passionate
·        Two teams in the same time zone – and a small one at that
·        Two teams from the same market
·        Non-competitive – the Giants were swept in four games by the superior A’s
These are not hard and fast rules.  The mere presence of the Yankees can override the other factors (a sweep involving two New York teams is still high-rated because the nationally loved and hated Yankees are on the stage).  And the 1985 Series between St Louis and Kansas City was actually high-rated because it was a thrilling seven-game affair.  But all things being equal (and they never really are), Milwaukee-Detroit is much less attractive than New York-St Louis.
Live awards shows – back to the future.  As late as the 1970s, big awards shows like the Emmys, Grammys and Academy Awards were routinely broadcast live coast to coast.  It was easier technically, and it just made sense to treat the shows like a news or sporting event and share the results as they happened with the entire country, particularly in Los Angeles, where the entertainment industry lives.  But in the 1980s and 1990s, awards shows other than the Academy Awards were tape-delayed in the Pacific time zone because more viewers are at the set at 8 pm than 5 pm PT.  This was fine for West Coast viewers as long as they didn’t turn on the radio before 8 pm, lest they hear some of the award winners.  And then the Internet took off.  It became impossible for entertainment fans to avoid websites, emails, Tweets or even texts that might spoil their tape-delayed viewing experience at 8 pm PT.  As ratings began to decline in the Pacific time zone faster than the East/Central, we at NBC decided to experiment with the Golden Globe Awards and offer it to the Pacific stations at 5 pm and offer a repeat at 8 pm PT.  Nielsen rules allowed us to combine the ratings of both Pacific telecasts – a rare opportunity in television: zero risk and only upside in ratings and revenue.  The first year (around 2005) the owned NBC stations in the Pacific (Los Angeles, San Francisco, San Diego) and a handful of non-owned NBC stations signed up.  We increased ratings in these markets (especially in industry hometown LA), and in the next two years virtually all of the West Coast took the Golden Globes live.  Soon the Emmy Awards (which rotates from broadcast network to network) followed suit when it was NBC’s turn to carry them.  Now the Emmys are routinely carried “live across”, as it is called.  Now if the Grammys and especially the Olympic Games would follow suit.
Early cancellation by time zone.  Many shows have been cancelled after one or two episodes, but one show has the dubious distinction of being virtually cancelled as it made its way across the country.  Turn-On, a controversial sketch comedy show premiered on ABC on Wednesday, February 5, 1969, at 8:30 / 7:30 Central.  Legend has it that the ABC station in Cleveland pulled the plug before the first quarter-hour aired, based on the volume of viewer complaints, while Seattle and Portland decided not to air the show when their turn came up three hours later.  By the next morning it was clear very few ABC stations would even consider airing a second episode, the sponsor dropped out, and Laugh-In was left alone in the counter-culture genre.
Read more about demographics and TV ratings here:  Factoids from Nielsen’s “Universe Estimates” and The Skinny on the Nation’s TV Markets 

About the Author

Mitch Metcalf
MITCH METCALF has been tracking every US film release of over 500 screens (over 2300 movies and counting) since the storied weekend of May 20, 1994, when Maverick and Beverly Hills Cop 3 inspired countless aficionados to devote their lives to the art of cinema. Prior to that, he studied Politics and Economics at Princeton in order to prepare for his dream of working in television. He has been Head of West Coast Research at ABC, then moved to NBC in 2000 and became Head of Scheduling for 11 years.