TV Ratings: Winners, Losers, and Spinners

Any shred of positive news is grist for the networks' publicity mills -- never mind if it's not strictly true

By Ronald Grover

You probably think the TV season starts with those much-touted fall premieres, the resolutions to last May's cliffhangers. (Did anyone think that Friends' Rachel would marry Joey?) But the TV season really begins when the promos start flying -- you know, the self-serving snippets that declare NBC "the most watched network," or ABC as the place "where more people get their news."

Indeed, scarcely a month into fresh episodes, CBS is bragging that its Thursday night CSI is the top-rated TV show, and NBC is making a similar claim about battle-scarred veteran ER.

The fight for the hearts and minds of the coach-potato set may have reached a new low this year, however. For just a few hours on Oct. 1, NBC was touting its new Thursday night show Good Morning, Miami as the tube's top-rated new comedy with a 15-second spot. Just one little problem: According to Nielsen Media Research, Good Morning, Miami wasn't No. 1. But for a few glorious hours, NBC was able to tell viewers otherwise.


  Lest anyone thinks that NBC set out to deceive the TV faithful, this is how the confusion came about. NBC, relying on overnight ratings from the Sept. 26 episode of Miami, cut a promo on Monday, Sept. 30, about the show's success and scheduled it to run on Tuesday, Oct. 1. Unfortunately, on Sept. 30, the Nielsen national data -- the final numbers, if you will -- were released, and those had CBS's Still Standing as this season's No. 1 new comedy.

CBS complained about NBC's ad to Nielsen, which is the final arbitrator of such matters. By the time CBS complained, NBC had voluntarily yanked the promo -- but only after getting a good night's worth of airtime. According to Nielsen spokeswoman Anne Elliot, NBC's explanation for running the promo was that it had already cut and scheduled it. NBC officials did not return calls seeking comment for this story.

In a world of fragmented TV audiences, hypersensitive media moguls, and job-worried network brass, it's not surprising that even the slightest bit of good news seems to be trumpeted these days. Now, I don't think NBC really thought it would get a boatload of new viewers rushing to their sets for the next episode of Good Morning, Miami. But I bet the Peacock Network enjoyed strutting its stuff -- even if only for a few hours.


  Laura Caraccioli, vice-president of Chicago ad agency Starcom Worldwide and director of Starcom Entertainment, puts it even more bluntly. "It's all really about egos," she says. NBC simply wants the world to know that "they can program a show at 9:30 on Thursday nights," long a problem time slot for the broadcaster on an otherwise strong evening.

As for the audience that really should matter -- media buyers with their ad dollars, like those who work with Caraccioli -- the promos are pointless. "We use our own numbers, not the ones they give us," she says. "We know who's doing well with the audience our clients are trying to reach."

So, who exactly are the networks trying to impress -- each other? At the end of last season, CBS claimed it was the top-rated network -- if you excluded NBC's airing of the Winter Olympics. And, in fact, CBS was able to offer numbers from Nielsen that made this point. Throw in the Olympics, and NBC was No. 1.


  This may all seem a little silly to people outside the business, but network types care enough about these things that this year, the broadcasters asked Nielsen to step in and set some standards. As a result, says Nielsen spokeswoman Elliot, networks are now clearly identifying the Nielson numbers they're using in promotional claims.

So when AOL Time Warner took out a recent ad in the trades saying TNT "earns top ranking among upscale networks," the ad had a line at the bottom that identified the average audience income and age, and the time period for which the numbers were taken (8 p.m.-11 p.m.). And when the Cartoon Network claimed this spring in another trade ad that it lured "more male teens" than any other cable network, it had to identify male teens as being from the ages of 12 to 17 -- Nielsen's definition.

Such parsing works in print ads, where you can throw in microscopic explanations. But what do you do about TV ads, which (mercifully) blitz by in the blink of an eye? Well, I guess you just wing it. That's what NBC did when it went with the overnight numbers in its Good Morning, Miami promo. Nielsen accepted NBC's explanation, says Elliot.

End of story? Here's what I want to know, and no one has quite explained it to me: What would the punishment have been, since NBC and CBS both are among the networks and ad agencies that pay Nielsen to provide the ratings.


  Odds are that you're going to see more promos like this as the network season continues. TV executives have all manner of ways to promote their shows, and I'm sure they'll dream up new ones to tickle viewer interest. Not long ago, says Elliot, ABC put out promos that said, "More Americans get their news from ABC," at about the same time NBC claimed its news show was "watched by more Americans." Both, it turned out, were true. ABC was counting its news-radio stations.

When media types are involved, creativity is never far away. Too bad more of it isn't applied to their programming.

Grover is Los Angeles bureau chief for BusinessWeek. Follow his weekly Power Lunch column, only on BusinessWeek Online

Edited by Patricia O'Connell

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