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Did Showtime's 'United States of Tara' really get 2.5 million viewers?

January 23, 2009 |  5:07 pm

Tara Showtime spent a bundle marketing "United States of Tara," its new comedy starring Toni Collette as a housewife with multiple personalities. So after the first ratings came in this week, the network crowed to reporters that the premiere-night audience topped 2.5 million total viewers.

There was, however, a small asterisk beside that number. In fact, only 881,000 viewers had watched "Tara" during its initial airing, according to Nielsen Media Research. That's way better than the premium network did for earlier premieres of shows such as "Weeds" and "Californication," but obviously it's a lot less impressive than the figure given out by the PR folks.

Showtime, as it turns out, arrived at that 2.5 million tally by throwing in viewers who watched repeat airings. Also included was a "projected" audience for online viewing, which wasn't measured by Nielsen. Should those numbers all be lumped together like that? 

They generally aren't by the Los Angeles Times and other media outlets, which tend to report numbers only for original airings on broadcast and cable. But there's a growing push within the cable business to change that. What's at stake is the determination of what constitutes a hit — if indeed that term still has any residual meaning in a world of DVRs and fragmented audiences.

Some cable executives believe that because their programming strategy (unlike that of broadcasters) relies heavily on replays, counting the numbers for just the original airing unfairly disadvantages their business. Leading the charge for this argument is John Landgraf, president and general manager of FX Networks, which airs such series as "Rescue Me," "Nip/Tuck" and "It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia."

At the recent TV press tour in Universal City, Landgraf sharply criticized the way most publications, including this one, report ratings. "The traditional method of reporting ratings the day after a program premieres is outdated and, at best, paints an incomplete picture of true audience deliveries," he told the crowd.

"The premiere number of a new series is a really small indication of whether it's ultimately going to be successful on the air," he added. "You have to monitor its performance over the course of an entire season."

In a follow-up phone call last week, Landgraf reiterated his belief in cumulative weekly ratings — or "cumes," in the lingo of TV programmers — rather than overnight numbers as the most objective yardstick of cable program performance.

"To me, the most meaningful measure is weekly viewership," he said. Basic cable ratings should really count up to four airings per episode, while premium networks such as Showtime and HBO should be able to count as many as six airings. (Showtime spokesman Richard Licata wrote me in an e-mail that multiple airings are important to pay cable outlets because they offer "subscribers viewing options throughout the week to see [cable networks'] original programming.")

Counting only the actual premiere, Landgraf argued, enabled repeat-averse broadcasters to have "dined out on the false notion" that their aggregate audience is "much greater than it is."

Landgraf raises a number of compelling points. It's true that the media (this column included) don't do a very good job of examining the ratings performance of top cable shows over the course of their runs. And the growing use of DVRs has added a nearly unbearable layer of complexity to that task. Nielsen now takes many days to tabulate DVR usage, which can add 20% or more viewers to some shows' ratings but has almost no effect on others. Most readers (and editors!) understandably crave clarity, but the TV measurement industry is, alas, running in the other direction.

Landgraf's argument on behalf of cumulative ratings, however, strikes me as completely wrong-headed. As Showtime's "Tara" example shows, once someone starts tossing numbers into a big pot, the result is a numerical stew. Good luck comparing any program with others in its genre, or to how it did the previous year. Each premiere figure would have to be regarded with skepticism — is it based on four airings? Or six? Does it include DVR figures? What about online? How many of the viewers who watch the repeat already watched the original episode? 

Unitedstatesoftarainsert_2 In short, "cumes" foster inscrutability —  which, unfortunately, would suit just fine any PR person who's only chasing a nice headline. And things needn't be so unclear: When The Times reported the "Tara" numbers, it gave the figure for the original airing as well as the network's "cume" data.

What's particularly noteworthy about the "Tara" example is that Showtime didn't really need to gild its performance. Its premiere was up 60% compared with the 2007 premiere of "Californication" and more than doubled viewership from the 2006 "Weeds" launch. What's wrong with those headlines?

— Scott Collins   

(Photo courtesy Showtime)   

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