The decline of broadcast TV ratings recalls Hemingway’s description of stumbling into bankruptcy, inasmuch as the phenomenon has happened “gradually, then suddenly.” Over the last seven seasons, the Big Four has seen its share of adults 18-49 crater, dropping from 47 percent in 2007 to 33 percent this spring. And seemingly overnight, a cable series about peckish ambulatory corpses has usurped a wildly popular CBS comedy as TV’s No. 1 scripted show.
Fragmentation is not only stunting the growth of the syndication market—good luck grooming a series for an off-net run after a 46-episode lifespan—but the networks’ seeming inability to build an audience over time has thrown the entire ratings-guaranteed performance model into disarray.
“The key is to get the estimate within 5 percent of what you’ll actually deliver,” said one network sales executive. “The worst thing you can do is sell a 2.0 C3 impression and deliver a 1.5. Now you’re giving back a quarter of your inventory [for makegoods].”
Say the third season of your female-skewing political drama averages a 1.5 in the demo. Given that only four of the 83 scripted network series grew year over year, you can be 95 percent confident that the Season 4 deliveries will drop below a 1.5. Still, you turn around and guarantee a 1.6 the following year, knowing that you may well be up to your neck in ADUs (audience deficiency units)—do a 1.3, and you’re handing over 20 percent of your inventory to mollify the client.
“The biggest sin is to leave dollars on the table,” said one sales boss. “Better to give an inflated estimate than to low-ball it and overperform. Not only are you giving away GRPs for free, but by going out low, you’ll have a harder time getting the desired rate increase on your returning hit.”
Because buyers have so many viable options at their disposal, underdeliveries are seldom crippling. “Out of an average upfront, probably 5 percent of the networks will have serious issues with their deliveries,” said Kirsten Atkinson, media director, Team One. “That’s nothing in the grand scheme of things.”
Agencies are also finding more creative ways to offset ratings deficiencies. Rather than accept ADUs in less-desirable programming, buyers can book recapturable units in shows that better align with the original media plan. And advanced cross-platform measurement has made digital inventory a far more favorable makegood option.
“It’s another way the industry is moving to make up for the ratings shortfall,” Atkinson said. “At the end of next season, I hope to see that we do have fewer underdeliveries.”