NBC’s “Young Rock” premiered recently to a 1.0 rating in the adults 18 to 49 demographic — which sounds awful but in 2021 qualifies as a tremendous debut. In an age when almost everything does between 0.4 and 0.8 in fast national Nielsen ratings, we’ve truly gotten to the point where live+ same day or even live+3 day and live+7 day numbers don’t mean anything anymore. That’s why it’s not a surprise that following the downsizing of NBC ratings guru (and former Variety ratings expert) Tom Bierbaum, the Peacock network just announced that it would stop the practice of issuing daily fast affiliate ratings reports altogether.
“We didn’t come to this decision lightly, but believe it’s important to accurately reflect how the television business is changing and, specifically, how these early ratings numbers are no longer representative of the performance of a particular show or series,” wrote NBC’s Stuart Levine, another Variety alum who wrote plenty of ratings stories during his time here, and therefore knows the significance of ending those daily morning emails. “Long gone are the days when a vast majority of viewers watched their favorite shows in the exact timeslot in which they were scheduled.”
The trend has been heading in this direction for a while, starting in 2015, when Fox was the first to cease its daily ratings spins to the press. Of course, we all still got the numbers and could call up execs to get their takes on hits and misses.
But these press releases became a bit more embarrassing in recent years; who cares if you won the night with a 0.9 rating, or that it was your best performance in three months on a Tuesday? ABC brass (many of whom were at Fox when the 2015 edict was set) have also pulled back on daily ratings reports, leaving just CBS — which has generally stuck with touting much more impressive total-viewer numbers, rather than those increasingly microscopic demos.
The overnight numbers give a quick initial snapshot of how a show performed live, and offer a clue to how it might do via streaming on demand. Ratings may still matter to advertisers, but the value of a show comes much later: Is it the kind of streaming binge that can be monetized as a subscription draw? We might not know that for months or years.
“In a way it’s unfair to say, ‘The networks have to come clean about who watched them last night,’ when we have to trust that Netflix is giving us accurate information,” says former NBC and Fox scheduling chief Preston Beckman. “So it kind of levels the playing field a little bit.”
But much like how film analysis has adjusted to a world without box office punditry during these COVID times, taking away the daily ratings race has the effect of eliminating so much of the fun of television showmanship. Execs of a certain age may recount calling network ratings hotlines at 6 a.m., with a racing heartbeat, to see whether a show premiere was a hit or a flop. (Those hotlines disappeared years ago. I know because I just tried the ones I still have scrawled down somewhere for ABC, CBS, NBC and Fox — and they all go to dial tones or recordings of non-working numbers.)
Remember sweeps? November and February were so important that at the end of the month, network presidents would hold back-to-back press calls to tout and shamelessly spin their performances. Sweeps became less relevant as Nielsen expanded its people meter technology in local markets, eliminating the old-fashioned paper diary that used to make November, February and July extra special. Sweeps hasn’t been necessary in major markets forever, which is why it’s ridiculous that major stations in New York and Los Angeles still save their “this common household appliance WILL KILL YOU” stories for that month.
But I digress. So much of the primetime strategy that we used to cover in the 1990s and 2000s was about those numbers, from scheduling big events vs. a rival’s important premiere, and earning the bragging rights that can be trumpeted in promos, at upfront presentations and yes, in those daily press releases. It was the game. “I remember the disasters more than the successes,” Beckman says of those day-after ratings reports. “I started looking at them in 1980. Even when I retired, I still found myself looking at them every morning. It’s something of an addiction.”
Now, as the importance of the daily report cards fade away, I’d argue it’s a good thing for creatives, freed from the tyranny of a flawed yardstick for success. So many great shows or series with real potential were snuffed out because of those initial ratings, and often replaced by shows that performed even worse. But when a new show popped, there was nothing more exciting. Beckman also remembers the thrill of seeing those first few weeks of “ER” numbers and knowing that a phenomenon had just been unleashed. Now that so much of TV doesn’t adhere to ratings, I also wonder if the TV business is losing a competitive spark that helped inspire some of its best work.