CBS’ Poltrack: Demos Don’t Tell the Entire Story of the 2012-13 Season

Research boss says smarter measurement, targeting could usher in 'golden age'

Despite a season that’s been marked by vertiginous ratings declines, CBS research guru David Poltrack believes that broadcast’s slow start “is not indicative of how the season will progress.”

Speaking to investors today at the UBS Global Media and Communications Conference in New York, CBS’ chief research officer said that the fall ratings have been impacted by a number of disruptive events, including numerous pre-emptions caused by the presidential debates and the late-October megastorm that caused major power outages in New York and New Jersey.

Of CBS’ slate of four new series, three experienced disruptions related to the debates and Hurricane Sandy. The recently canceled Partners was bumped two weeks in a row (Oct. 22 and Oct. 29), while the new hit Vegas was pre-empted by the second presidential debate on Oct. 16 and Election Day itself.

All told, 16 episodes of various freshmen broadcast series were pre-empted by election activity or the storm. Among the returning series that experienced some October chaos were NBC’s The Voice, Fox’s New Girl, ABC’s Modern Family and CBS’ Person of Interest.

Poltrack also noted that a number of new series were available for sampling prior to the official start of the season (Sept. 24), thereby pulling GRPs out of the marketplace.

Only 43 percent of all new series premieres were viewed live as scheduled, while 51 percent were accessed via DVR. Five percent of the new fall debuts were streamed online, while the remainder of the series openers was delivered via video on demand.

All told, live, linear sampling of new series was down just 4 percent versus 2011, Poltrack said.

Should Nielsen further its efforts to blend traditional linear ratings with streaming and on-demand data, it would be more immediately apparent that broadcast TV “may be entering a new golden era,” Poltrack said. In the meantime, many online impressions are overlooked and are not counted against ratings guarantees. This effectively makes younger viewers all but invisible to advertisers, as the 18-24 set is far more likely to watch network content outside the home.

A look at the linear deliveries for 2012-13 underscores why Poltrack and his colleagues are eager to squeeze more value out of digital viewing. Through the first eight weeks of the season, CBS is down 20 percent among adults 18-49, averaging a 2.8 rating in the demo. The network leads all comers with total deliveries, averaging 11.5 million viewers per night.

Fox is suffering the greatest year-over-year declines in the dollar demo, falling 29 percent to a 2.5 rating. Only NBC has shown growth, averaging a 3.2, up 23 percent from the same period in 2011.

With five weeks of the C3 currency on the books, the declines are less pronounced—although the respective time periods are not symmetrical. Through the end of October, Fox and CBS are both down 19 percent in the demo (2.3 and 2.2, respectively), while ABC dropped 11 percent to a 2.2. The currency puts NBC in the lead with 2.9, up 15 percent versus the first five weeks of the 2011-12 season.

For all the agita churned up by the historically weak live-plus-same-day numbers, CBS still boasts the top-rated scripted series on broadcast TV in The Big Bang Theory, which averages a 5.0 in the 18-49 demo in its Thursday 8 p.m. time slot. (The top-rated scripted series on all TV is AMC’s The Walking Dead, which closed out the first half of its third season with an average 5.3 rating in the demo.)

The net also has introduced the two most-watched new series of the season in Vegas and Elementary. The Michael Chiklis-Dennis Quaid Vegas period piece averages 11.3 million total viewers, while the Sherlock Holmes refresh, Elementary, draws just south of 11 million per night. By comparison, NBC’s biggest new hit, Revolution, is averaging 8.4 million viewers in its freshman campaign.

Of all 21 new series that have been introduced since the season began, Revolution puts up the biggest numbers where it counts. Per Nielsen, the show is averaging a 3.1 in the dollar demo. The older-skewing Elementary is outperforming the field in CBS’ target demo, averaging a 3.3 rating among adults 25-54.

As is his wont, Poltrack spent a good deal of his presentation speaking about the importance of progressing beyond the industry’s myopic devotion to age- and gender-defined demographics. He reviewed how CBS and Nielsen Catalina Solutions were able to demonstrate how viewers of the drama Blue Bloods overindexed on soft drink purchases, despite the fact that marketers tend to overlook that show’s older (35-64) demo.