SBJ/June 25 - July 1, 2007/SBJ In Depth

Networks, leagues battle perceptions in ratings dips

It has become the dominant story from today’s top sports events, garnering headlines and the focus of sports television and talk radio.

It creates a trail of sound bites and spin and puts sports and network executives on the defensive, while giving fodder for the Chicken Littles of the world who insist the sky is falling on sports.

What is it? Today’s television ratings.

The story from the 2006 World Series wasn’t the performance of the St. Louis Cardinals, but the record low rating for the five-game series. The recently concluded 2007 NHL Stanley Cup Finals set an all-time low ratings mark, including one night that became NBC’s lowest-rated night ever — that’s right, EVER.

The headlines emanating from the 2007 NBA Finals weren’t focused on the San Antonio Spurs’ dynasty. Instead, the story was how viewers turned away in droves, making it the lowest-rated Finals in league history, and how one game attracted fewer viewers than an HBO series — even though HBO is available to only one-third as many homes.

There’s more. Ratings for the 2007 Bowl Championship Series were down dramatically. The 2007 NCAA basketball tournament was one of the lowest rated in history. And NASCAR is going through its second straight season of declined ratings.

Even the country’s strongest league, the eternally healthy NFL, has seen its ratings drop slightly over the past decade.

The situation is frustrating league and network executives to no end. Not so much by the ratings declines, most of which were expected. Rather, network executives are irritated by how the media is reporting the numbers and the dire warnings they portend.

In talking about the ratings for this year’s NBA Finals, John Skipper, ESPN’s executive vice president of content, complained about a New York Times game story that he said included three paragraphs about the series’ dismal ratings. “It’s shocking to see how mainstream this has become,” Skipper said. “Ten to 15 years ago, you didn’t see ratings stories in the sports pages.”

But reporting TV ratings has become a staple of today’s sports reports, much like newspapers’ entertainment sections keep score of box office receipts for movies, and network and league executives are girding themselves for more negative ratings stories for years to come.

“We will continue to see ratings challenges if you continue to look at the television broadcasts of single games in single seasons,” Skipper said. “It’s not that complicated. I don’t know why anyone would be surprised by this.”

Despite the drop in ratings, executives insist that they are in good shape. Researchers at the four biggest broadcast networks say sports ratings are not dropping nearly as fast as prime-time entertainment programming. In fact, they say sports programming, especially when it is live, is holding up relatively well.

“There is no way that sports will not be impacted by fractionalization, which is a meta trend,” said Alan Wurtzel, NBC Universal’s president of research and media development. “As people go from having a dozen channels to 50 channels to 100 channels to 500 channels, there’s no reason to believe that sports won’t be impacted that way.”

While the sports industry is dealing with record ratings lows, the entertainment industry in Hollywood is seeing a greater erosion in their audience, and it’s one that puts sports’ drop in a better context and a better light.

Overall, the combined prime-time ratings for the four big networks have dropped about 29 percent from the 1996-97 broadcast season to the 2006-07 season, from a combined 37 ratings points to 26.4. This year, broadcast executives were concerned by significant decreases in prime-time stalwarts like “Lost” and “American Idol.”

By comparison, sports programming is relatively healthy. Take one of the highest-rated sports from 2006 — Fox’s NFL package — which has seen its Sunday afternoon game ratings drop just 6 percent since 1996, from an 11.3 to a 10.6.

Fox’s regular-season ratings for Major League Baseball are down 11 percent in that same 10-year period, from a 2.7 to a 2.4. And though ratings have dropped for two consecutive years, NASCAR races are seeing higher ratings than it reported 10 years ago.

The Daytona 500, for example, saw ratings rise 17.4 percent from 1997 to 2007.

“There are quite a few sports to look at and see a 10-year trend that’s a much better story than a 30 percent decline,” said Michael Mulvihill, Fox Sports vice president for research and programming strategy.

“Not every sport is up, obviously,” Mulvihill said. “But I think you can see examples where high-profile packages that have been on broadcast TV a long time are holding up better than entertainment programming.”

But other properties have not been holding up as well. In 1999, the year after Michael Jordan retired from the Chicago Bulls, NBC posted a 4.3 regular-season rating. This season, ABC posted a 2.0 — a 53 percent drop.

Similarly, the NHL has seen a 42 percent regular-season drop from 1997’s 1.9 on Fox to this year’s 1.1 on NBC.

There are a number of reasons for the drop — star appeal, matchups, broadcast windows, fragmentation — but the fact remains that when more people watch 20-year-old “Mama’s Family” re-runs on ION than the Stanley Cup on Versus, it’s tough to battle the perception that sports ratings are tanking.

But  record low TV ratings don’t necessarily translate into record low interest in a sport.

“That’s where you run into a paradox. Where you do have sports that are hitting record-low ratings and yet, when you look at the biggest picture and you compare it to everything that’s going on in TV, a lot of these sports are actually pretty healthy compared to broadcast prime time,” Mulvihill said.

DVR proof

The story of the prime-time entertainment ratings drop-off has been well told, but it’s one that doesn’t transfer to sports.

Nielsen sent out a research analysis in the spring that attributed the decline in prime time to several factors, from the earlier introduction of daylight-saving time by three weeks to the lack of Olympic programming in 2007.

But one of the main reasons Nielsen pointed to was the rise in digital video recorders, which allow viewers to time-shift their programming.

Nielsen does not include DVR viewers in its live ratings figures.

“Sports is immune to a lot of that stuff,” said Artie Bulgrin, ESPN’s senior vice president of research and sales development. “We will see ebbs and flows in the sports audience. We will see ebbs and flows in sport-by-sport.”

Independent research from the four big broadcast networks shows that 99 percent of sports programming is viewed live, compared with about 75 percent for entertainment programming. About 17 percent of the Nielsen universe has a DVR.

Sports appears to be immune to DVR viewing for a number of reasons, the most obvious being that people want to watch live events in real time.

But network research also shows that the young men who like to watch sports don’t necessarily like to use the DVR because they would rather channel surf between programs — something you can’t do on DVRs.

Plus, ESPN research shows that hard-core sports fans tend to watch several games at the same time, which also makes DVRs impractical.

“It is basically a handful of the most popular programs, mainly on broadcast, that account for time shifting,” Bulgrin said. “Big shows like ‘American Idol’ and ‘Grey’s Anatomy.’”

The spin on the numbers

Six months before the NBA’s ratings meltdown during this month’s Finals, NBA Commissioner David Stern sat in a conference room that adjoins his Manhattan office and studied ratings numbers from one weekend in December.

Speaking matter-of-factly and without rancor, Stern pointed to the number of non-NBA programs that struggled to earn even a 1.0 rating, and he compared them with NBA ratings, which averaged a 2.0 in the regular season on ABC this year.

Even though his league’s ratings were down sharply from a decade ago, Stern pointed out that NBA games typically win their time slots and provide branded programming that still attracts a significant audience. It was the same argument that Stern was making all this month during the NBA Finals.

It’s this interpretation of the ratings numbers where all the fun begins. That’s where the spin doctors come in and where sports and network executives are challenged to tell a better story.

The interpretations also lead to inventive ratings releases that feature some of the best PR sales jobs in the business. One former network sports PR executive is fond of boasting that he could spin a positive story for his network from any ratings number.

So, with ratings numbers dropping each year, some networks are opting against using the traditional ratings metric to tell their story. It’s not that that they won’t make them available. It’s more that they want to focus on total viewers, which are increasing in many cases.

NBC and Fox, in particular, have said that they want to focus on the total number of viewers that watch a specific event instead of a ratings number that few people understand.

NBC started this push as far back as 2002, when NASCAR’s Bill France Jr. complained to network executives that nobody understood what a ratings point represented, said Mike McCarley, vice president of strategic marketing, promotion and communications at NBC.

“He said, ‘Talk about eyeballs. Put it in terms that we can understand,’” McCarley said. “That is when we started to transition to viewers, and we are doing it as much as we can now.”

CBS and ABC/ESPN are resisting the move to make total viewers the de facto ratings metric. CBS’s LeslieAnne Wade said her network would focus on the ratings information that tells the best story for CBS, while ABC/ESPN’s Chris LaPlaca said his network would provide all numbers in its releases: ratings, households and viewers.

The networks’ push toward viewers makes sense, since the increased number of games on television has created a growing base of sports fans. Then networks can tout that more people are watching their programming than in the past. Citing the ESPN Sports Poll, Bulgrin says 219 million people considered themselves sports fans in the United States in 2006, compared with 186 million 10 years earlier.

“The amount of sports viewing in the United States now versus five or 10 years ago is up fairly substantially when you take into account the greater amount of actual sports on television,” said David Poltrack, CBS’s chief research officer.

“The average ratings have held up remarkably well because of what you would normally expect to be the dilution that might come about.”

So far, the debate over ratings is resonating in the press much more than on Madison Avenue. Advertisers are buying into the argument that sports are delivering the viewers they are targeting, whether that be young males or affluent alumni or high-end professionals.

Several ad buyers said they have not been scared away by the constantly dropping ratings. But of course they expect the lower ratings will translate into lower ad rates.

“Everything has been going down over time what with everything that’s going on,” said Ray Warren, president of Carat USA. “The quality of the alternatives has been better than ever.”

Even with the quality of choice and fragmentation, network executives decry the Chicken Littles who insist that sports programming is mortally wounded, with viewers fleeing and never coming back. All it takes is an attractive matchup, preferably with big-market clubs, to keep TV ratings from bottoming out.

“We spend very little time wringing our hands about these ratings,” ESPN’s Skipper said after the NBA Finals.

“I can tell you this,” Skipper said. “If Tim Duncan and Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker were wearing New York Knicks uniforms, we wouldn’t be talking about the lowest-rated series of all time.”


Television ratings glossary

Rating: An estimate of how many people within a universe (all TV households, or adults 18-49, for example) watched a particular TV program or part of the program (daypart). Ratings are expressed as a percent. A single, final national household ratings point represents 1 percent, or 1,114,000 households.

Share (of audience): Similar to a rating, but represents, as a percent, only the households or people actually watching television during the program or daypart. Thus, a share is a percent of a constantly changing number depending on the number of homes or number of people in a given demographic with a TV turned on.

Designated Market Area (DMA): A trademarked term of Nielsen Media Research that refers to a group of counties that form an exclusive geographic area in which the home market television stations hold a dominance of total hours viewed. There are 210 DMAs, covering the entire continental United States, Hawaii and parts of Alaska.

Metered market: Fifty-six of the nation’s largest markets monitored by Nielsen that use set-tuning meters. The local metered-market ratings are usually available in the morning after a telecast, and are usually called “metered market overnights” or “preliminary” estimates.

Households Using Television (HUT): The percentage of all television households in a survey area with one or more sets in use during a specific time period. The sum of the average ratings for a given time period will sometimes be higher than the HUT number because of households viewing multiple programs at the same time. If a household is watching two programs, it is counted toward each program rating but only once toward a HUT number.

Cost Per Thousand(CPM): Advertisers’ cost per thousand viewers exposed to a commercial. The total cost for one or a series of commercials is divided by the projected audience shown in thousands. If the cost of a commercial is $50,000 and the projected audience is 4.6 million, then the CPM equals $10.86.

Coverage Area Rating: The estimate of the size of the audience relative to the total number of homes or people that can receive this channel. Coverage Area Ratings are used for each individual cable network. The Coverage Area Rating for one cable network cannot be compared to another cable network’s coverage area rating or a broadcast network rating. Only total U.S. ratings or audience projections (estimated number of households or persons) can be compared between/among networks.


Top 10 live network sports telecasts in 2007 (through June 3)
Network
Program
Date
Rating
Households (000s)
CBS Super Bowl XLI: Colts-Bears
2/4
42.0
46,782
CBS AFC Championship: Patriots-Colts
1/21
26.1
29,093
Fox NFC Championship: Saints-Bears
1/21
24.9
27,701
CBS AFC Divisional Game: Patriots-Chargers
1/14
20.4
22,738
Fox NFC Divisional Game: Seahawks-Bears
1/14
19.7
21,923
Fox NFC Wildcard Game: Giants-Eagles
1/7
18.0
20,088
Fox NCAA Football: Tostitos BCS National Championship: Florida-Ohio State
1/8
17.3
19,226
CBS AFC Divisional Game: Colts-Ravens
1/13
16.3
18,178
NBC NFC Wildcard Game: Cowboys-Seahawks
1/6
16.2
18,071
Fox NFC Divisional Game: Eagles-Saints
1/13
16.1
17,971

Top 10 live cable sports telecasts in 2007 (through June 3)
Network
Program
Date
Coverage area rating
Households (000s)
TNT Eastern Conf. Finals Game 6: Cavaliers-Pistons
6/2
5.8
5,458
TNT NBA All-Star Game
2/18
5.1
4,679
TNT Eastern Conf. Finals Game 5: Cavaliers-Pistons
5/31
4.7
4,443
ESPN NCAA Football: Outback Bowl: Tennessee-Penn State
1/1
4.4
4,019
ESPN MLB Sunday Night: Yankees-Red Sox
4/22
4.2
3,930
ESPN NFL Draft
4/28
4.2
3,943
ESPN MLB Sunday Night: Yankees-Red Sox
6/3
4.2
3,953
TNT Western Conf. 1st Round Game 6: Maverick-Warriors
5/3
4.0
3,729
TNT Eastern Conf. Finals Game 4: Pistons-Cavaliers
5/29
3.8
3,573
TNT NBA All-Star Saturday Night
2/17
3.7
3,404

Source: Nielsen Media Research

Highest-rated sports programs of all time
Network
Program
Date
Rating
Households
(000s)
CBS Super Bowl XVI: 49ers-Bengals
1/24/82
49.1
40,020
NBC Super Bowl XVII: Dolphins-Redskins
1/30/83
48.6
40,480
NBC Super Bowl XX: Bears-Patriots
1/26/86
48.3
41,490
CBS Super Bowl XII: Cowboys-Broncos
1/15/78
47.2
34,410
NBC Super Bowl XIII: Steelers-Cowboys
1/21/79
47.1
35,090
ABC Super Bowl XIX: Dolphins-49ers
1/20/85
46.4
39,390
CBS Super Bowl XVIII: Redskins-L.A. Raiders
1/22/84
46.4
38,880
CBS Super Bowl XIV: L.A. Rams-Steelers
1/20/80
46.3
35,330
NBC Super Bowl XXX: Cowboys-Steelers
1/28/96
46.0
44,145
CBS Super Bowl XXI: Broncos-Giants
1/25/87
45.8
40,030

Highest-rated television programs of all time
Network
Program
Date
Rating
Households
(000s)
CBS M*A*S*H series finale
2/28/83
60.2
50,150
CBS Dallas
11/21/80
53.3
41,470
ABC Roots-Part VIII
1/30/77
51.1
36,380
CBS Super Bowl XVI: 49ers-Bengals
1/24/82
49.1
40,020
NBC Super Bowl XVII: Dolphins-Redskins
1/30/83
48.6
40,480
CBS XVII Winter Olympics
2/23/94
48.5
45,690
NBC Super Bowl XX: Bears-Patriots
1/26/86
48.3
41,490
NBC Gone With The Wind-Part 1
11/7/76
47.7
33,960
NBC Gone With The Wind-Part 2
11/8/76
47.4
33,750
CBS Super Bowl XII: Cowboys-Broncos
1/15/78
47.2
34,410
 
Source: Nielsen Media Research

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