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Photo: Courtesy of AMC (Mad Men); Courtesy of FX (Justified); Courtesy of ABC (Dancing With the Stars); Courtesy of Fox (Fringe, Glee); Courtesy of CBS (60 Minutes)

The online outbursts of Kurt Sutter, the creator of Sons of Anarchy, have become something close to legend around Hollywood. When Mariska Hargitay snagged her umpteenth Emmy nomination this past summer, his response was simply, “Are you fucking kidding me?” Of all his rants, however, a low-key tweet Sutter sent out in early September probably resonated most among his peers:

Dear DVR users. Gotta watch SOA before Tuesday if you want your viewership to count for episode 301. Pass it on …

Sons of Anarchy is hardly ratings-challenged. Its season-three premiere on the FX network in September scored more than 4 million viewers, according to Nielsen, well into hit territory for a midsize cable network. So why was Sutter almost begging folks who’d already gone to the trouble of recording his show to actually follow through and watch it? Because there’s a widening gap between ratings and the actual number of people watching. The overnight numbers widely reported by the media—and Hollywood’s general barometer of a show’s health—can account for as little as 25 percent of the eventual audience for, say, an FX comedy. Alan Wurtzel, NBC Universal’s president of research and media development, says that even an established show like Bravo’s Top Chef gets 60 percent of its viewership post-premiere. “We know people are watching more and more [shows] than they ever did before,” he says. “They’re just more difficult to find and measure, and we’re not getting credit.”

The networks, via Nielsen and their own in-house research teams, are scrambling to count all those other viewings, from rebroadcasts on the same network to iPhone downloads. Today, you are nearly invisible to the number-crunchers if you get your Glee fix from Hulu or download Desperate Housewives on iTunes. If it takes a month for you to get around to watching a Mad Men episode that’s on your DVR, in the eyes of Nielsen it’s as if you never even tuned in at all. “People don’t watch shows the night you put them on anymore,” laments Sutter’s boss, FX Networks president and general manager John Landgraf.

Starting this spring, Nielsen will (after significant pressure from the networks) take a big step forward. In addition to counting what its sample households watch on TV, the ratings giant will start to measure what those homes view online. Most networks will get this “extended screen data” as a separate report, unless they agree to run the same load of commercials online as on-air. So far, they don’t: Conventional wisdom has been that Internet audiences won’t sit through more than a couple minutes of ads per hour. But this fall, the CW more than doubled its online-ad inventory, meaning that streaming episodes now contain virtually the same number of commercials as on TV. Hulu is so far sticking to its “limited commercial interruptions” game plan, but it’s also trying to beef up revenues by rolling out a premium service at $9.99 per month (the ads remain, however). Many network insiders believe online-ad counts have to go up, even on Hulu, as more and more viewing migrates to online platforms.

Though it’s tough to count the increasingly fragmented audience, it’s not impossible—just slow. The easiest data to collect are from so-called multiplay airings of a show, in which (mostly cable) networks repeat one episode of a series several times during a given week. Since those encores all carry the same ads, networks are allowed to report their audience as one total and charge ad rates based on that figure.

Then, about three weeks later, Nielsen issues a report incorporating DVR viewership of programs for the seven days immediately following their initial telecast. “Live plus seven” ratings can bump up marginal series such as Fox’s Lie to Me by as much as 35 percent—yet advertisers have not yet been persuaded to pay based on those numbers. (Rates are typically based on the first three days’ viewership.) Live-plus-seven has also become important in the world of public relations, because it demonstrates that network viewership isn’t eroding as quickly as is often depicted. In August, when USA Today published a list of summer-TV winners and losers, it cited live-plus-seven data rather than the usual overnights. Still, as one senior network executive puts it, “the press is never going to wait” nearly a month to evaluate a show’s performance. It’s also useless to advertisers with time-sensitive buys, like automakers looking to hype a last-minute sale. (Online numbers are even slower to get to programmers’ desks, becoming available only many weeks later, and will stay that way till Nielsen starts counting them next year.)

Some network insiders aren’t waiting for better technology: They’re pushing their sales staffs to start strong-arming ad buyers to pay for viewers that are not officially counted. David Poltrack, chief research officer for CBS, notes that a similar strategy is already used by networks when they sell big sporting events, where advertisers regularly pay a premium to reach a wider audience (in sports bars and at parties, say) than Nielsen data would suggest. Likewise, during the financial boom of the past decade, CNBC charged elevated ad rates for all those (uncounted) traders watching from their Wall Street offices. CBS and other networks regularly run studies to estimate how much of the sports audience isn’t being captured by Nielsen, and “buyers know all of this,” too, adds Poltrack.

Viewers who want good-quality television had better hope so, because the most vulnerable shows are critical darlings, programs like Sons of Anarchy or Mad Men. They are relatively expensive to produce, and, because their numbers aren’t as big as broadcast-network ratings, they can’t afford to have their totals diminished by uncounted viewing. As one programming executive put it, their sales departments “have to have the balls” to demand higher rates. If they don’t—or if Nielsen doesn’t figure out a better way to track viewership across all platforms—we will begin to see even fewer Don Drapers and more Situations. As Charlie Collier, the head of AMC, puts it: “If we give premium television away, not valuing it appropriately, the best will disappear.”

Six Shows, Six Audience Models
Every TV program now has its distinctive set of niche audiences—and if a network can cobble together a viewership from those niches, it’s a lot more likely to keep that show on the air.

This Platform Is Not Yet Rated