Saturday, February 11, 2006

Lies, Damn Lies & Nielsen Ratings

I love this headline at
thursday's ratings: 'office' continues growth
latest episode holds 93.88% of 'earl's' adults 18-49 audience
Sounds like great news for NBC, doesn't it?

Let's look a little closer at the numbers.

"My Name Is Earl" and "The Office" aired back-to-back since "My Name Is Earl" preemed on September 20, 2005. NBC was initially very concerned since "The Office" couldn't hold the audience of its lead-in. For the first few weeks, "The Office" held only 60-65% of households from "My Name Is Earl." That's outrageously low, but NBC kept airing "The Office" since it didn't have many options and since "The Office" attracted a large percentage of affluent viewers.

Let's add more fuel to the fire. Here is all historical data for the percentage of households that "The Office" retained when it immediately followed "My Name Is Earl."

(Click on the image to see a larger version.)
Figure 1. The percentage of total households that a new ep of "The Office" retained when it immediately followed a new ep of "My Name Is Earl."
NBC should be thrilled, right? Look at that nice consistent growth over time. What great news for "The Office!"

But should NBC really be happy?

Remember, to calculate percent retention you take the rating for "The Office," divide that number by the rating for "My Name Is Earl" and multiply by 100. Simple enough. Percent retention increases if: (a) the rating for "The Office" increases, (b) the rating for "My Name Is Earl" decreases, or (c) some combination of these two. How did the ratings for each series change over time?

(Click on the image to see a larger version.)
Figure 2. Household ratings for "The Office" and "My Name Is Earl" when the series air new eps back-to-back. The data in this Figure are used to calculate % households retained in Figure 1.
NBC shouldn't be so thrilled, should they? Instead of spinning the numbers to convince us that "The Office" is doing so well, NBC should be more concerned about declining ratings for "My Name Is Earl."

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