TV networks hide bad ratings with typos, report says

TV networks will intentionally misspell the names of shows when submitting episodes with poor viewership to Nielsen, reports The Wall Street Journal.

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If I mistakenly write "NBC Nitely News," you can probably still tell what program I'm talking about. Nielsen's automated system can't, however, and a report Thursday in The Wall Street Journal details how networks are taking advantage of that fact to disguise airings that underperform with viewers.

It's described as a common practice in the world of TV ratings, where programs with higher ratings can charge advertisers more to run commercials. When an episode performs poorly with viewers, the networks often intentionally misspell the show title in their report to Nielsen, according to the Journal. This fools the system into separating that airing out as a different show and keeping it from affecting the correctly-spelled show's average overall rating.

The report says the practice was initially used sparingly -- for instance, when a broadcast would go up against a major sporting event. But it has now grown fairly common, with NBC misspelling the title of "NBC Nightly News" 14 times since the current TV season began last fall. At one point, that reportedly included an entire week of broadcasts.

Competitors ABC and CBS allegedly followed suit, with ABC reportedly submitting "Wrld News Tonite" on seven occasions over the same time period. CBS reportedly misspelled the name of its evening newscast as "CBS Evening Nws" a total of 12 times. (CBS is the parent company of CNET.)

The Journal says gamesmanship occurs with regards to scripted programming, too. This, the WSJ says, lets networks separate reruns out from first-run episodes and boost a show's overall ratings.

Such a practice might be largely for the sake of marketing, with networks typically looking to boast publicly about show performance however possible. Still, it seems odd that Nielsen would allow them to do so with any sort of regularity, given that it ultimately calls the accuracy of its numbers into question.

Nielsen issued the following statement to CNET:

"With participation and input from clients, Nielsen maintains a rigorous set of policy guidelines for how network clients can and should receive program and commercial ratings credit for their programming. Nielsen takes these Policy Guidelines very seriously and if we find a network working in contrast to this agreed-upon policy, we address the issue in a direct fashion as a way to maintain fairness and balance over all of our clients and the industry as a whole. We have many touch points with clients throughout the season to ensure guidelines are being adhered to."  

ABC, NBC and CBS didn't immediately respond to requests for comment. An NBC spokesperson told The Wall Street Journal that the retitlings were "standard industry practice."

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