When it comes to TV sports my ideology is I’d like to see everything succeed. When it comes to analyzing what actually happens with sports TV ratings I often have to push that ideology aside, but a lot of the time multiple things actually succeed at the same time.
But they succeed in ways that make for boring narratives, i.e. for whatever reasons “Baseball is dying!” makes for a more click-friendly headline than “Baseball is making more money than ever!” You could still get to click-bait with that approach if you needed to by tacking on a parenthetical “and more than the NBA!”
Because these days it’s pretty much a thing that you can’t celebrate the success of something without taking a schadenfreude-ish poke at something else even if the thing you’re poking at is actually doing fine (or in the case of the NBA, great.)
So you get”‘The Vertical’ NBA draft show live stream was a huge hit with fans. Sorry, ESPN” instead of the bland but more accurate”‘The Vertical’ and ESPN both had pretty good nights with the NBA draft, and of course way, way, way more people watched on ESPN.”
The Washington Post story would’ve declared ‘The Vertical’ a huge hit with fans, even without any numbers because “twitter reacts.” That’s de rigueur these days, but the problem is if that’s how you define success, every single TV show that has been canceled due to low ratings in the Twitter era can be spun as a huge hit. Fortunately, I don’t think that’s an issue for The Vertical’s draft coverage.
Now some actual numbers
Yahoo published the following numbers for “The Vertical”: 3.7 million streams (regardless of length of stream watched, which is inflated if “autoplay” was involved) and 2.8 million uniques that averaged 34 minutes per.
Meanwhile, ESPN averaged 2.994 million for its telecast. Down nearly 20% from last-year’s record breaking numbers and the lowest since 2012. Given the draft class, I don’t think down and down a lot from last year surprised anyone (I was guessing down at least 10%).
Apples, oranges and pears
I saw plenty of”Yahoo has 3.7 million viewers, ESPN 3.0 million!” tweets last night. Some of that happens because people don’t understand what any of the numbers mean and are easily misled by the big numbers in Yahoo’s announcement. I also think that some not tiny part of it happens because some people are rooting for ESPN to fail.
To put those numbers into better context, Yahoo loaded 3.7 million streams of any length while ESPN averaged 3 million viewers every single minute of a nearly 5 hour telecast.
Yahoo’s #s are worldwide and ESPN’s are only in the USA.
ESPN had an additional 557,000 uniques who streamed the draft via WatchESPN but ESPN did not provide average viewership on WatchESPN.
To the degree it’s safe to assume that Yahoo provided accurate numbers (and there’s enough past history to make a reasonable person wonder if that’s the case) then Yahoo wound up with around 92.5 million minutes of viewing or around 1.5 million hours of viewing.
I can’t convert that to average viewership because I don’t know how long The Vertical’s telecast lasted. Apparently The Vertical’s program only lasted through the first round of the draft while ESPN’s coverage included both rounds. But if Yahoo’s numbers are reasonably accurate and The Vertical’s show lasted 2-hours, it would’ve been average viewership of around 770,000 or on average 770,000 for every single minute of the telecast. If Yahoo’s coverage lasted 3-hours average viewership drops to around 515,000, if it lasted 4 hours, 385,000, etc.
The Vertical had a pretty nice night
Even if I assume that Yahoo’s numbers are somehow inflated by a factor of 2 because of autoplay and that Yahoo can say whatever it wants in press releases without being audited by members of the general public, if The Vertical’s draft program averaged even 300,000 viewers, That’s pretty good even if it’s a worldwide number.
Just my opinion but whether it’s 300K or 800K, The Vertical had a nice night.
ESPN had a pretty nice night too
I can count on one hand the number of non-game live sports programming on ESPN that averages nearly 3 million viewers for nearly 5 hours. ESPN’s draft numbers were down from last year and the lowest since 2012. But it’s still a very big number for something that wasn’t an actual game.
If you’re the kind of person who deliberately chooses your numbers to spin ESPN in the worst possible light because you’re rooting for ESPN to fail, be careful! That approach can be turned around on you.
ESPN had 770 million minutes of engagement in the U.S. to Yahoo’s 92.5 million minutes worldwide. ESPN crushed, destroyed and obliterated Yahoo’s The Vertical coverage if you want to look at it like that.
That’s a dumb way to look at it, and unfair to The Vertical, but it is a way to look at it and one that’s definitely less crazy and more fair than the “Yahoo had 3.7 million viewers, ESPN had 3 million!” nonsense.
ESPN is under no obligation to release the number of unduplicated viewers who watched at least 1 minute but I wish it would. It’s an essentially meaningless number (just like Yahoo’s 3.7 million streams and 2.8 million uniques) but you can be sure it’s a lot bigger than 2.8 million. Update: per ESPN 14.48 million watched at least 1 minute of ESPN’s NBA Draft coverage.
Total engagement matters
Years ago Fox Sports Senior VP of Programming and Research Mike Mulvihill taught me* a valuable lesson about how to convert streaming numbers into a more apples-to-apples comparisons with TV ratings numbers and why total engagement (total minutes of viewership) matters. And of course, once you see it, it’s obvious – if one thing has a billion minutes of engagement and one thing has 100 million, there’s a lot more advertising dollars to be made when you have the billion minutes.
While that’s obvious, because of how the numbers are spun (a la the ridiculous Yahoo had 3.7 million viewers to ESPN’s 3 million!) it’s not so obvious if you don’t understand what the numbers mean.
*I wasn’t working for Fox Sports (or anyone) at the time, Mr. Mulvihill is just a good guy who was helping a dope on the internet understand how the numbers worked. You should follow him on Twitter.
Video measurement is too hard, and it’s all our faults
Walt Mossberg wrote in his initial Personal Technology column in the Wall Street Journal in the early 1990s that “Personal computers are just too hard to use, and it isn’t your fault.” But when it comes to video measurement, especially digital video measurement, I’m not sure it’s not our fault.
Here’s Joe Marchese lamenting the miles we have to go because no matter how apples-to-apples we can make the comparisons between TV and streaming, you still don’t reallllly know, for example, how much attention was spent looking at the iPad versus the TV while you were using both.
That’s undeniably true, and a common refrain among those in the digital video biz. It strikes me as some sort of Godwin’s Law equivalent in that it seems any discussions that focus on terrible comparisons made about digital streaming versus TV ratings inevitably wind up at some variant of “but you don’t actually know how much time they were looking at that screen though!”
That’s a fact, and maybe I’m too myopic, but in 2016 I view that fact as a counter-productive distraction. It’s a bunch of cavemen shouting “UGH! ugh! UGH! Ugh!” (translation: “We want a fucking Ferrari!”) before they can even agree that wheels should be round.
It can be better and it will have to be. Fortunately, at least with TV sports that are streamed, apples-to-apples comparisons are getting better.
Sure, it’s not biometric retinal scanning that determines attention with 100% (or any) accuracy — that’s still a couple of years off, sorry. But at least it’s something!
Most of the chest-thumping PR around streaming sports from national networks that I’ve seen includes all of the numbers to make the apples-to-apples comparisons to TV or actually makes the comparison. Not always, because, as is often the case, some numbers* aren’t worth thumping chests about.
*Separately I’d also argue that almost all of the networks live-streaming sports efforts are huge money losers with no near-term relief in sight, but that’s a post for another day.
Lots of people love drafts
Millions of people watched some portion of the draft coverage live instead of just reading about it on the web or social media.
That lots of people love drafts is the most interesting aspect of any of this to me, which of course means I have no future in web publishing. Don’t worry, I’ll be fine.
ESPN and The Vertical will be fine too.