Amid the interweb wrestling community we write about a lot of “industry-related” issues that have very real outcomes for the performers that we enjoy watching each week on television. Over the last 16 – 17 years where the interwebs have actually had a reasonably-sized following of wrestling fans, the most commented upon and most frequently referenced industry-related issue is ratings.
But even though the ratings are a highly-discussed topic, the truth is that most folks don’t understand how ratings work in cable television. In this column, I attempt to give a very brief primer on what cable ratings are and how they’re composed. The second half of the column is where I give my perspective regarding why viewership is going to ultimately trump ratings in a changing cable television and entertainment consumption market.
What Are Cable Ratings?
Most people just assume that the rating a show receives can be translated into a “millions of households” number. While that’s somewhat close, it’s not the correct interpretation. Take WWE RAW from December 22, 2014. That episode of the show brought in 3,631,000 viewers, but its cable rating was a 2.57. Clearly, you can see that the show didn’t bring in just 2,570,000 viewers – it brought in over a million more viewers than that number!
The 2.57 number represents the percentage of American households that had television access available and turned on who were tuned in to WWE RAW on December 22, 2014. Another way to say that statistic is that of all American households who can and do view television programming, 2.57% of those households were watching WWE RAW that night.
A figure that is often paired with the cable rating that a show generates is that show’s “share” for the night. While a show’s cable rating is the percentage of American television households that tuned in to watch a show, the share is the number of American television households – who were actually watching television at the same time as the program in question – who tuned in to watch a show. In other words, since everyone in the country is not watching television at the same time (not even on the Super Bowl), chances are incredibly high that a show’s share will always be higher than its rating. While I didn’t see WWE RAW’s share for the December 22, 2014 episode (admittedly, I didn’t look too hard), it wouldn’t be out of the question for the share to be anywhere from 3.5 to 4.5 – depending on total active television viewership for the evening.
Why Viewership Will Be The Most Important Indicator
Don’t get me wrong – as of right now, ratings still rule the day. When television executives talk about how well a show is doing, they bring up their ratings. It’s only for super-sized level blockbusters that you hear anyone ever talking about total viewership. Think about the Super Bowl – you rarely hear that they scored a whatever rating. Rather, you hear that they brought in 130+ million viewers. The same is true of the Walking Dead and Game of Thrones just as it was true for Breaking Bad, The Sopranos, and Lost.
That reality aside, the landscape of entertainment consumption is changing. Our media is continually being fragmented into smaller and smaller segments. If I only want to watch college sports, I can keep my television locked on ESPN U. Of course, if I only want to watch college sports in the Big 10 Conference, then I can keep my television locked on the Big 10 Network. And hey, if I only want to watch college sports in the Metro Atlantic Athletics Conference, then I can watch the online offerings from the schools in that conference.
See what I mean? People can vote with their eyeballs more now than ever and that fragmentation will only increase as the cable landscape continues to morph with the times. First it was the introduction of products like TiVo which led to the built-in DVR systems in our cable boxes. Then it was the ability to watch shows via Netflix and Hulu. Now you have the creation of uber-specific viewing experiences like the WWE Network and New Japan World. In the immediate future, I think those trends will continue with apps like HBO Go and Xfinity’s X1 platform that allows you to watch your cable subscription on different, internet-connected devices within your home network.
The possibilities for individualizing your viewing pleasures are really endless.
And that fragmentation doesn’t only break the existing cable ratings system, it shatters it to pieces. It is quite possible for a show to bring in a 0.0 rating with a 0.0 share, but for there to be a large and growing viewership via DVR, online viewing, and other methods of consuming the program. In this type of world, the cable ratings won’t matter as much as the total viewership at the end of a set period of time. At IWHeadlines.com, we’ve tried to bring some of that picture of the future into our ratings reports over the last several years. You can check one of our old ratings reports from September 2014 and read the second to last paragraph of the update.
In that paragraph, you’ll notice that I talk about how DVRs increase a show’s viewership by 10% to 12%. You’ll also notice that I talk about how Spike.com versions of the full episodes of IMPACT Wrestling brought in up to 20,000 viewers (some much more, some less). And I also comment on how YouTube versions of different clips of IMPACT Wrestling bring in up to 50,000 viewers (again – some much more, some less).
For the episode of IMPACT Wrestling that was covered in the ratings report that I linked above, the officially reported viewership number was 1,095,000. Well, when you add in an 11% increase for DVR viewers (that’s 131,400 more viewers) as well as another 20,000 viewers on Spike.com combined with another 50,000 viewers on YouTube, all of a sudden the real viewership of that episode jumps to 1,296,400. If that viewership was translated into a rating figure for the night, the final rating for that show would jump from a 0.88 to a 1.04. In cable television, a 0.16 jump in a final cable rating is huge!
And that’s what I think Destination America – and the Discovery Channel – saw in IMPACT Wrestling. No, I don’t think that they saw new, first-run episodes of IMPACT Wrestling bringing in almost 1,300,000 viewers – or even 1,000,000 viewers. Instead, I think that Destination America saw a brand that could make the best of their reduced footprint (Destination America is available in about half as many homes as Spike TV). I think the Discovery Channel saw a brand that could bring in about 500,000 viewers during first-run episodes and about half that amount during the reruns. After the online and DVR viewership, I think the Discovery Channel was excited to partner its Destination America brand with a show that will bring in about 630,000 sets of eyeballs every week.
That type of weekly audience can’t easily be bought in today’s fragmented cable television landscape and the Discovery Channel knows that very well. That’s why viewership will matter much more than cable television ratings in the near future and beyond. And that’s what I think Destination America gets from this partnership with IMPACT Wrestling – they get about 630,000 new sets of eyeballs to show off their programming to on a weekly basis. I expect we’ll see a ton of cross-promotion between Destination America and IMPACT Wrestling – and I’m fine with that arrangement. It’s time for IMPACT Wrestling to move to the next level even if that means taking a step backward in terms of their primary program’s reach so they can expand the number of hours of programming each week.
If this partnership is done right, then both Destination America and IMPACT Wrestling have an opportunity to show why viewership matters more than ratings. I, for one, am excited to sit back and watch this play out!
– Joe Vincent