As long as there have been audience ratings, there have been efforts by content providers to manipulate those ratings by exploiting the particular dynamics of how the data are gathered and reported (I talk about this a bit in my 2003 book, Audience Economics). Last week the New York Times ran an interesting piece describing some of the current efforts by national television networks to game television ratings in the era of the C3.
The article describes some well-known examples, such as running a popular program a couple minutes over into the next program’s time slot (in order to goose that program’s reported rating), or labeling certain episodes of a program (specifically, those expected to perform below average, for whatever reason) as “specials” in order to keep them from counting toward the season average. Obviously, these strategies are intended to exploit the specific procedural dynamics associated with how the ratings data are reported.
Some of the newer examples (at least to me) involved the distribution of the commercial loads within individual programs. Specifically, networks will front load all of the program’s national commercials. As the article notes, “Shows receive national ratings from Nielsen only up to the point when the last national commercial is broadcast — after that, the numbers simply do not count.” The article doesn’t make this explicitly clear, but I’m assuming this strategy is a direct response to the adoption of the C3 rating (which functions as currency at the national level, but not at the local level).
This is a reminder that every new audience measurement system brings with it a variety of challenges — one of them being figuring out how best to exploit the particulars of how the system works.