TV Ratings Spiral As Execs Struggle to Declare Hits.

Abbott Elementary began its second season Sept. 21 with an audience in line with its averages for its first season. Still, after a season of critical adoration and just days after two high-profile Emmy victories, the opening numbers on ABC — 2.92 million viewers — could seem underwhelming.

That 2.92 million figure, however, represents only about 42 percent of the people watched the show over its first seven days. Almost as many — just under 2.7 million — watched the Abbott premiere on Hulu or ABC’s streaming app, according to the network. About 1.38 million caught up via Nielsen-measured DVR use.

We’re highlighting Abbott Elementary not because those ratings numbers make it an outlier, but because its performance is pretty typical of a scripted show on a legacy outlet. With streaming now a first (or only) option for a large number of TV users, the ratings landscape has changed significantly even in the three years since The Hollywood Reporter last broke down the ins and outs of TV measurement.

In analyzing available data and conversations with research and ad sales executives at several media conglomerates, a more complicated picture of just how many people watch a given show — and where and when they choose to watch — emerges. The on-air, first-day viewing that was once the standard for networks and advertisers is now less indicative of success for most programming — sports, other live events and news very much excepted — than it ever has been. Streaming has also extended the life of any given TV episode almost indefinitely, and media companies are measuring (and occasionally touting) those long-tail viewers.

A lot of that data remains shielded from the public, the subject of transactional discussions between ad buyers and sellers or streaming outlets and creators but not generally available for the media and TV watchers to dissect. Netflix has taken a few steps toward transparency, posting weekly lists of its most watched titles online and signing up with Nielsen for measurement of its soon-to-debut ad-supported subscription tier. Amazon, similarly, has been open about its Thursday Night Football viewership, with the games part of Nielsen’s national sample and supplemented with first-party data (though good luck finding much from the company about The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power). A host of newer analytics companies have also elbowed into the space where Nielsen had a virtual monopoly for decades, meaning that the transactional side of TV measurement is moving more toward a multi-currency model.

Nielsen ratings are, however, still the foundation for the public-facing component of TV measurement on network and cable outlets, along with occasional in-house supplemental data about streaming. From those numbers and what streaming data is out there, it’s possible to come to a decent understanding of how and when people choose to watch.

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