They misspell shows to fool the firm’s automated system into ignoring broadcasts on nights with few viewers; “NBC Nitely News”
July 6, 2017 10:22 a.m. ET
Boosting TV ratings is easy for networks that don’t mind playing dumb.
In a game largely sanctioned by TV-ratings firm Nielsen, television networks try to hide their shows’ poor performances on any given night by forgetting how to spell.
That explains the appearance of “NBC Nitely News,” which apparently aired on the Friday of Memorial Day weekend this year, when a lot of people were away from their TVs. The retitling of “NBC Nightly News” fooled Nielsen’s automated system, which listed “Nitely” as a separate show.
Hiding the May 26 program from Nielsen dramatically improved the show’s average viewership that week. Instead of falling further behind first-place rival “ABC World News Tonight,” NBC news narrowed the gap.
Walt Disney Co.’s ABC declined to comment. The network, though, groused last month when NBC News intentionally misspelled an entire week of “Nightly News” broadcasts. Altogether, NBC, which is ranked second behind ABC in ratings, has played the misspell card 14 times since the start of the 2016-17 television season last fall.
NBC News said it broke no rules. “As is standard industry practice, our broadcast is retitled when there are pre-emptions and inconsistencies or irregularities in the schedule, which can include holiday weekends and special sporting events,” a show spokesman said.
The network needn’t feel defensive. ABC took its own ratings mulligan seven times during the 2016-17 season with “Wrld New Tonite.” CBS misspelled “The CBS Evening News” as the “CBS Evening Nws” 12 times this season.
“It’s a little bit of gamesmanship,” said Bill Carroll, a veteran TV industry consultant. “It’s a practice that happens with a wink and a nod.”
Nielsen projects viewer ratings based on a panel of more than 40,000 homes and 100,000 people. Higher ratings help networks sell commercial time at higher rates. The network misspellings fudge that calculation, and some advertisers say the trick is getting overused.
“Networks never used to do this,” said Billie Gold, director of programming at ad giant Dentsu Inc. Now, she said, it has become the norm.
TV news executives say the higher numbers gathered from show misspellings are used only for publicity purposes, and that accurate ratings for the missing broadcasts are readily available to advertisers.
Ms. Gold and other ad executives say they are frustrated with the detective work required to kick the tires on network viewer ratings. She said her clients are surprised by the difference between the number of eyeballs the networks claim and Ms. Gold’s tally, which accounts for the altered titles.
“When people ask us why our estimates are so much lower than what they see,” she said. “We explain the situation, and they have their ‘ah-ha’ moment.”
Faced with complaints that title typos have grown from a trickle to a torrent, Nielsen plans to hold a meeting about it next week for TV industry representatives.
“If we find a network working in contrast to this agreed-upon policy, we address the issue in a direct fashion as a way to maintain fairness and balance for all of our clients and the industry as a whole,” Nielsen said.
Nielsen has long had a so-called tilting rule that allows TV networks to fiddle with programs for special circumstances. For years, tilting was used sparingly, reserved primarily for Christmas and Thanksgiving or if a show was pre-empted in parts of the U.S. for a live sports event.
Misspelling isn’t the only network trick. CBS boasted that its legal drama “Bull” was the most-watched new show of the just-finished TV season. Typically, a show’s viewership is calculated using the ratings of both first-run and repeated episodes, which are labeled “R” or “repeat.”
When CBS submitted its schedule to Nielsen, however, it labeled reruns of “Bull” as an “encore.” The ratings service categorized it as a different show and didn’t factor the rerun into the show’s season average.
“That’s bull,” cracked Brad Adgate, a longtime ad executive who studies TV ratings. For advertisers, the network sleight-of-hand is a pain in the neck, he said: “You have to pay a little more attention if you want do an analysis.”
A CBS spokesman declined to comment.
Another ratings game involves the calculated placement of national TV commercials. NBC’s “SaturdayNight Live” typically loads all of its national commercials in the first hour of the 90-minute show. Since Nielsen counts viewers of a show only through the last network commercial break, the ratings service ignores SNL’s last half-hour, when viewers generally turn away.
Sometimes networks sneak in a second airing of a show and add the additional viewers to tally of the original telecast and hope no one notices.
NBC in 2015 persuaded almost a dozen of its local TV station affiliates to rerun “Nightly News” after 2 a.m.At the time, NBC said, it was focused “on ways to reach our audience when and how they want to be reached.”
A rival network thought otherwise and alerted NBC advertisers to the practice. After learning of the stunt, many advertisers cried foul. They told NBC whoever was watching the newscast at that hour wasn’t the kind of consumer they wanted to reach. NBC said it quickly discontinued the practice.