Nielsen’s television ratings determine almost alone whether a TV show is considered successful, whether it stays on the air, and how much advertisers pay to run commercials during it. They are incredibly important to everybody in the television business, and reporters breathlessly cover them, from the less accurate overnight ratings as soon as they’re out to the finalized ratings hours later.
But to access ratings data you have to pay Nielsen a lot of money, and to understand them you have to spend a lot of time with the data. When I reported out my recent story on how ESPN and FS1's morning shout shows are doing, I gathered two years of ESPN and FS1 ratings data from Sports TV Ratings, and then spent hours aggregating and comparing them a number of different ways.
Most reporters don’t do that—they can’t do that—which is where PR people come in. When you see ratings data reported, there is a very good chance they were given to the reporter by a television network’s PR staff. A large part of their job involves sending out ratings information and spinning it in beneficial ways, using a million different tricks to make programs look more popular and successful than they actually are. Most networks send out daily PR blasts with selective ratings data, and I have even gotten unsolicited emails from PR staffers highlighting their competitors’ poor ratings. Many reporters are quite happy to uncritically pass all of these numbers along.
This morning, The Wrap—a popular Hollywood and entertainment news site—published a piece titled “Skip Bayless Jumpstarts Fox Sports 1 Viewership by 358 Percent in First Month.” If my email inbox is any indication, it bears a truly remarkable similarity to Fox Sports PR talking points.
When writing my piece, I asked Fox Sport PR to send me any ratings data they wanted, in order to fact-check the data I’d gathered on my own, see if there were interesting ways of looking at the data I hadn’t considered, and see how Fox Sports was trying to promote Skip Bayless and Second Take. They sent me 10 bullet points of ratings data. Most of these uncannily resemble points found in The Wrap’s piece.
The former ESPNer’s new series “[Second Take]” has produced a 358 percent overall time slot increase in its first month versus the same calendar-part last year.
Fox Sports PR:
[Second Take] is up 358% against last years’ time period (87,000 vs. 19,000).
Last September, prime competitor ESPN2’s average viewership was 23 times that of Fox Sports 1. This time, the ESPN2 advantage was down to three times that of FS1.
Fox Sports PR:
A year ago, from 9:30a-12pm, ESPN2’s viewership was almost 23 times the size of FS1. Now, it is just over 3 times the size.
The “[Second Take]” impact is also carrying over to the show that follows it, “The Herd With Colin Cowherd.” Since launch, “The Herd” has recorded its four most-watched weeks in history, rising 60 percent over the same time period last year.
Fox Sports PR:
Since [Second Take] came on air, The Herd is up 60% against last year (93,000 vs. 58,000). In addition, the four weeks of The Herd since [Second Take] began are the four most-watched weeks of the show to date on the network, with this past week (9/26-9/30) having the best weekly performance for the show, averaging 103,000 viewers.
Speaking of ESPN2, Skip’s old show, “First Take,” is down 28 percent since the launch of “[Second Take].”
Plus, ESPN2’s “His & Hers,” which goes head-to-head with “The Herd,” has been down 22 percent since “[Second Take]” kicked off, per Nielsen numbers.
Fox Sports PR:
ESPN2 is seeing declines in its key talk shows of First Take and His & Hers. First take is off 28% in viewers since the launch of [Second Take] (327,000 vs. 457,000) and His and Hers, which airs against The Herd is off 22% (245,000 vs. 313,000).
What’s missing from the piece is any context, which makes these percentages look much more impressive, and better for FS1, than they really are. There is no mention of the actual number of viewers any of these shows are drawing, masking how much bigger ESPN’s viewership is. There is little mention of the fact that FS1's ratings were so bad that there was nowhere to go but up, that its other widely-hyped shout show has been a massive failure, that sports TV ratings are down pretty much across the board, or that Skip Bayless is being paid $6.5 million annually to helm a terrible show that is rarely one of the 50 most-watched sports shows on any given day.
And, honestly, this is all perfectly understandable. The author of The Wrap’s story can’t spend multiple days writing a long piece every time there are some vaguely interesting ratings data, and it’s not like any of the Fox Sports PR-provided information is wrong; it’s just presented selectively, in a way that makes it highly misleading absent context.
The frightening thing is how common this is. It’s not just ratings data, but tech reporters covering a press release without any evidence the product works or that the public wants it, science reporters presenting the findings from an abstract without reading the body of literature, political reporters road-testing consultant-crafted attack lines for candidates, and all reporters interviewing the “experts” whose availability is announced to thousands of inboxes. The reason PR flacks push their bullshit on reporters is that it works.