So You Think Lady Gaga Is the Only One "Gaming the Numbers?"
This week, ABC News sent out an exciting press release on the growing success of GMA, contents of which TVNewser ran online today:
Meanwhile, #2 "Good Morning America" is attracting its largest audience in four years. The ABC show is still more than 600K Total Viewers behind "Today" but had its smallest Total Viewer gap with the NBC show in four years.
The averages for the week of June 13:
Total Viewers: NBC: 5.15M / ABC: 4.53M / CBS: 2.21M
A25-54 viewers: NBC: 2.30M / ABC: 1.64M / CBS: 824K
Finally, so it seems, the Today Show is being challenged after 809 weeks at #1. And this isn't the first signal from one of the TV industry's most visited websites:
TV Newser on June 6th: Meanwhile, the No. 2 morning show, ABC's "Good Morning America," had its best overall sweeps in five years and best May sweep since 2005, posting the smallest Total Viewer gap with "Today" (780K) in 4 years.
TVNewser's report for the week of May 30th: Year over year, "Today" and "GMA" both experienced growth, with "GMA" up the most, +10%. "GMA" is seeing its largest total viewer audience in four years.
But is it really? In a business that has more dirty tricks than a Donald Segretti pizza party, there is a new sleight of hand in the morning show ratings war.
Since the end of April, ABC's Good Morning America has moved its last network commercial higher up into the broadcast. To cut through the inside baseball, this stunt officially allows them to report an earlier end to the show, shaving off as many as 15 (lower-rated) minutes when the audience is usually in decline. Without those lower-rated minutes, the average rating of the show, calculated by the Nielsen company, is obviously going to be higher.
Good Morning America began declaring this shorter duration for the show just in time for this May sweeps which began on Thursday, April 28, 2011.
As not to interfere with the ratings spike they were certain to get from special events coverage of London's royal wedding on Friday April 29th, the new plan didn't fully kick into gear until Monday May 2nd. On that day, Nielsen shows the official length of the 2-hour broadcast was 81 minutes. On Tuesday May 3rd, it was 75 minutes long and by Wednesday: 72, again, a full 15 minutes shorter that the usual 87 minutes Nielsen had been calculating for years.
Like Everything Else, Blame It on Zucker!
To begin with, it's fair to ask how a 2-hour show was rated for only its first 87 minutes in the first place. Credit Jeff Zucker, the original mastermind of this particular ratings scheme. Soon after I became the executive producer of Good Morning America in 1999, I learned that Today (then run by Zucker) had been placing their last network commercial (which signals to Nielsen the end of the show) before 8:30 so that the last, lowest rated half hour of the morning show would not be calculated into the average. Once it was flagged, we at Good Morning America quickly added the same ratings scheme to our morning war arsenal.
Somewhere along the way, as the Today Show expanded to more hours, it began adding more and more of what I will now christen "commercial creep," further shortening the rated duration of their first two hours.
Today has had phase II of this secret little advantage for ages. The question for GMA is: what took you so long?
The question for TVNewser remains: as you "crunch the numbers," why do you so blindly reprint every network's press releases without ever asking your own questions?"
It's true, this week's numbers are still the numbers and Today is still the #1 morning show after a whopping 809 weeks, even with the new level playing field. The only consumer element in play is the so-called year-to-year growth at GMA trumpeted by the same PR folks who pepper the press releases with superlatives: the most, the largest and the best in years.
More viewers aren't necessarily coming to GMA as their press campaign would have you believe. Re-jigging the numbers is just a short-term band-aid that will only take them through April 2012 (when they'll get to compare the average ratings of a 72-minute show to one a similar length instead of comparing the rating of a lean and mean 72-minute broadcast to one that includes the wilted end of one that's 87 minutes.)
Hopefully before then, those of us who love the morning shows and root for their continued success, can report on genuine audience gains in the future, achieved by smart news coverage, competitive booking, and creative ideas.
For those still scratching their heads over the puzzle: "when is a 2-hour morning show not a 2-hour morning show" here is a chart of the latest official daily "running times" of Good Morning America from Nielsen Media Research:
Date Start Time End Time Duration
04/26/11 07:00:00 08:26:00 87*
04/27/11 07:00:00 08:26:00 87*
04/28/11 07:00:00 08:26:00 87*
04/29/11 07:00:00 08:40:00 101**
04/29/11 09:00:00 09:59:00 60**
05/02/11 07:00:00 08:20:00 81
05/03/11 07:00:00 08:14:00 75
05/04/11 07:00:00 08:11:00 72
05/05/11 07:00:00 08:11:00 72
05/06/11 07:00:00 08:12:00 73
05/09/11 07:00:00 08:14:00 75
05/10/11 07:00:00 08:13:00 74
05/11/11 07:00:00 08:14:00 75
05/12/11 07:00:00 08:14:00 75
05/13/11 07:00:00 08:13:00 74
05/16/11 07:00:00 08:13:00 74
05/17/11 07:00:00 08:14:00 75
05/18/11 07:00:00 08:12:00 73
05/19/11 07:00:00 08:11:00 72
05/20/11 07:00:00 08:12:00 73
05/23/11 07:00:00 08:15:00 76
05/24/11 07:00:00 08:14:00 75
05/25/11 07:00:00 08:13:00 74
05/26/11 07:00:00 08:13:00 74
05/27/11 07:00:00 08:12:00 73
05/30/11 07:00:00 08:11:00 72
05/31/11 07:00:00 08:16:00 77
06/01/11 07:00:00 08:11:00 72
06/02/11 07:00:00 08:14:00 75
06/03/11 07:00:00 08:12:00 73
* running time for years
**royal wedding coverage
This blog originally appeared in Shelley Ross' daily Xpress