Putting aside their intense competition, top executives from Fox, CBS, ABC and NBC took the highly unusual step of gathering together to discuss the effect new technologies are having on television ratings.
At a gathering held on the Fox lot Monday morning, the four networks teamed up to discuss the challenges of determining success and failure when more people are watching on platforms other than live television including online and video on demand (VOD).
The meeting came just days before the major broadcast networks start rolling out new shows for the fall television season. No doubt concerned about low-sampling new comedies and dramas, the executives also used the meeting to stress to the media the need to look beyond the initial ratings.
"These are crazy times in terms of viewer measurement," said Fox Broadcasting Chief Operating Officer Joe Earley. "We won't know if a show is a hit until several weeks."
Presenting analysis of the television landscape, the executives noted that the amount of viewing being done online both on computers and mobile devices as well as VOD and digital video recording devices has grown substantially in the last few years. In 2012, more than 1.3-billion hours of broadcast and cable-TV content was watched on VOD, up 40% from 2011.
What that means is the next-day ratings Nielsen provides — known as overnights — are becoming less relevant.
"Evaluating hits and misses based solely on the overnights is something that doesn't make sense anymore," said Will Somers, head of research for Fox.
Some television shows, including Fox's "New Girl," already have more viewers watching recordings of it after the episode airs as opposed to watching it live.
Advertisers and the media still put a tremendous amount of weight on those overnight numbers and the networks will face an uphill battle in changing the perception that those early numbers are key to determining success.
Furthermore, the networks are primarily paid by advertisers for people who watch shows live or within three days of recording them. The networks are trying to expand that window to seven days and ideally longer as more viewers watch shows on their schedule.
"Hopefully they find a way to watch it in a way that we can monetize it," said Eric Steinberg, a senior research executive at CBS.
Fox's Somers acknowledged that the networks are anticipating ratings for new shows to be off compared with previous years.
"We're going to continue to see downward pressure," he said.
Fox's Earley cracked that the networks like the Netflix model, which is, "We don't tell you if anyone has watched."
Follow Joe Flint on Twitter @JBFlint.
An earlier version of this post misidentified CBS executive Eric Steinberg.
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