NBC Wins Despite Losses

By Tim Wolff, VP, TV & Digital Publishing Innovation, Futuri Media

The proverbial champagne corks were popping at NBC this week, with news that the network had become #1 in the coveted 18-49 year-old demo.

The Super Bowl and Olympics were key drivers to get them over the hump, but it wasn’t really a story about strong growth over the past few years; rather, it’s a story about the least amount of loss.

As Adweek points out, in the 2017-2018 season, NBC had twice as many viewers in the demo as they did this season. In fact, this year’s victory with a 1.1 rating in the demo would have been 4th place just a few years ago.

But a win is a win, and NBC gets to say they are #1 in the demo. It gives them something to brag about to advertisers.

However, it is more than that. It is an illustration of the nature of our broadcast business. We often find it more important to compare ourselves to our perceived competitors than to focus on our real performance with our audience.

I see it at the local level, too. I recently was talking with a GM (and former News Director) whose station used to dominate early-evening news with double-digit ratings. In the last ten years, they’ve lost 80% of their audience, down to a 2 rating. “But hey,” he said with a smile, “we’re still #1 in our market.”

In sales, local stations go out of their way to determine their share of the market spend. Sometimes, a station can miss its revenue goals by more than a million dollars…but if they hit their market share relative to their competitors, they’re satisfied.

What both of these examples show us is that we are wired to compete, and that we judge ourselves by how others with similar roles are performing. Unfortunately, it’s not necessarily a great barometer of success. Having a solid share of the market means a lot if your competitors are really good; it means nothing if you and your competitors are all mediocre. On the news side, being the #1 station out of 4 lousy stations is really nothing to brag about; it just means you’re the least lousy.

That’s one reason that top stations find other ways to measure success–starting with measuring against oneself. At the #1 stations I’ve been a part of, we have always set our goals relative to our own performance–not to our competitors. This helped ensure we never fell into the trap of lowering our standards to anyone else’s level, and that we kept pushing forward to always be a better version of ourselves. It was a driving key to our success.

So what about NBC, winning the demo despite having half as many viewers as just 5 years ago? They’ve got some real challenges to consider; Peacock is far behind Paramount Plus (and Disney Plus, Amazon and Netflix). CBS still had more overall viewers than NBC.

The reality is that network programming, with commercials, will always have a hard time competing against commercial-free streaming. In that context, it can feel like “losing the least viewers” is a reason to celebrate for NBC.

But for local news stations, the scenario is different. Local news stations are offering something no streaming service is: local news. It’s typically the only place to get it on television in any given market, and local stations have a 70-year branding lead on streaming services.

As long as they are providing value and local context, strong local stations can continue to see strong ratings, no matter how the networks perform. And local station leaders need to realize that their competitors are not the stations across the street; the competitors are also not the streaming services.

The only way for stations to truly succeed is for stations to compete with themselves. If we can constantly strive to understand our audience better, to deliver higher-quality content, to report news that has profound impact on our communities, then the audience will be there.

If we’re just trying to hang on to be a little better than the other guys, then our audience will fade away, and being #1 will be an empty celebration.

Tim Wolff is the VP of TV & Digital Publishing Innovation at Futuri Media. To learn more or continue the conversation, email him at timwolff@futurimedia.com or message him on LinkedIn at https://www.linkedin.com/in/timwolff1/.
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