Here’s a deceptively difficult mathematical riddle for those eggheads on CBS’ new sitcom The Big Bang Theory: How, exactly, do you calculate a TV show’s real audience? These days, it takes a Fields Medal to figure out the answer to that question, as well as to determine who’s taking the early ratings lead in the new fall TV season. With digital video recorders now in 20 percent of homes — up from 9 percent last year — the networks receive two different ratings reports from Nielsen: One tallies viewers who watch shows on the same day that they air; the other tracks those who play back episodes up to seven days later (known as ”live-plus-seven” ratings). Using this method may be the most accurate way to count an audience, but it’s causing an industrywide headache. ”People are watching TV as much as they used to,” argues Vince Manze, NBC’s president of program planning, scheduling, and strategy. ”They’re just consuming it differently. This has been the train coming down the track for a long time.”
While plenty of viewers tuned in to broadcast television the old-fashioned way during premiere week — the debuts of ABC’s Private Practice and NBC’s Bionic Woman scored 14.4 million and 13.9 million, respectively — highly promoted shows like ABC’s Dirty Sexy Money (10.4 million) and CBS’ Cane (11.2 million) attracted lower turnouts. The networks are begging for patience — and with good reason: Nielsen takes two weeks to calculate live-plus-seven ratings. And those numbers can do quite a bit to boost a show’s bottom line. Live-plus-seven ratings for the week of Sept. 17 reveal that an additional 827,000 people caught Survivor: China‘s Sept. 20 premiere (boosting it 5 percent), while Kid Nation‘s Sept. 19 bow increased its viewership by 515,000 (also up 5 percent). Those bumps could make all the difference when it comes time for a network to decide whether to save or axe a struggling show. (The CW recently touted promising ”early DVR usage” when picking up its teen drama Gossip Girl for a full season — even though the Oct. 3 episode only lured 2.7 million live-plus-same-day viewers.) ”We’re not just making excuses,” says Kelly Kahl, CBS’ head of scheduling. ”This is the new currency of our business.”
But blaming delayed numbers can help deflect attention from bad news — and there’s more than enough to go around so far this fall. Though ABC is currently tied with NBC for first among adults 18-49, two of its highest-rated shows (Desperate Housewives and Grey’s Anatomy) have registered double-digit percentage drops versus last year. Even after NBC helped Heroes gain 3.6 million viewers by folding in ratings from a Saturday rerun of its Sept. 24 season premiere, the show posted a series low on Oct. 8 with 10.9 million viewers. (Nielsen announced on Oct. 9 that it will no longer allow networks to calculate one rating from multiple airings.) Fox has seen its expensive Kelsey Grammer sitcom Back to You lose nearly 3 million viewers since its premiere, while CBS’ CSI: Miami and Cold Case have declined in both total viewers and adults 18-49. ”Shows that rank in the top 20 on [regular weekly ratings] are probably going to rank in the top 20 on live-plus-seven days,” says Fox scheduling chief Preston Beckman. ”When you’re seeing a 20 percent decline in a Desperate Housewives or a Grey’s, no different metric is going to change the fact that the show is down.” So what’s the best way to measure a hit show? ”You can’t judge shows by their first-week numbers,” argues Shari Anne Brill, media analyst for Carat USA. ”There’s lots of sampling, later debuts, and delayed viewing. Give it four weeks and then you can make an assessment.” By then, hopefully that assessment won’t require a degree in applied mathematics.