The TV industry might not want to admit it, but it has had a really bad fall. Just about every network reported some dismal ratings; even a monster like "The Big Bang Theory" is suffering, which tells you something. And within the seven-day window that networks count, viewership -- particularly among advertiser-coveted millennials -- is down this fall, meaning bad news for ad-supported networks. The popular view says those viewers have gone AWOL.

But according to new data from media research firm SymphonyAM, those viewers didn’t just vanish. “Oh, they’re definitely still there,” Symphony CEO Charles Buchwalter says. They're just watching their shows after seven days, on platforms that don’t generally count toward advertising guarantees anyway. Nearly a quarter of millennials' viewing occurred via the Internet, and 30 percent happened outside those seven days, including regular video-on-demand watched via cable boxes. 

Mystery solved, but now the real work begins: “That 30 percent of nontraditional viewing is the fastest-growing part of the media landscape,” Buchwalter says, and so it’s essential for networks to figure out a way to count those untraditional viewers.

Where Did They Go?

hulu-millennials Hulu is "the streaming service of choice for Millennials," according to research from Symphony AM. Photo: Christopher J. Zara/International Business Times

According to Symphony’s data, Gen Y is turning more to streaming service Hulu than any other source of non-live or DVR viewing -- more even than Netflix and Amazon Prime -- for network shows. “Hulu is the streaming service of choice for millennials,” Buchwalter says. That makes sense, since Hulu has a larger, more current selection of network programming than other services.

That also means millennials are spending more time with Hulu than networks' own sites or apps (minus CBS, which doesn't put its content on Hulu, and therefore sees a much larger amount of viewing on its own site than the other broadcasters). The difference is stark, in the cases of Fox, ABC, and NBC, which see only 5 to 6 percent of delayed viewing coming from their sites or apps, compared to 46 to 52 percent from Hulu. Because those three all hold a stake in Hulu, this isn’t necessarily a catastrophe for them. It isn’t currently a panacea, either: Because ads shown on Hulu aren't sold by the networks themselves, the profits are more indirect. (Hulu's new ad-free option, at $13 a month, may help correct that.)

The kinds of shows that see big growth outside the seven-day window are those that already skew younger. The series premiere of ABC’s FBI soap “Quantico” saw an increase of 55 percent in its millennial audience from days 8-35 of viewing; Fox cop comedy “Brooklyn Nine-Nine” saw a lift of 40 percent. The rest of the top 10 gainers were similarly youthful; among them, animated comedy “Bob’s Burgers” and the CW’s “Arrow.”

Use It Or Lose It

While this data is all very interesting from an anthropological standpoint, the real question is: How does a network profit from an audience that still loves TV but wants to watch it differently?

One way is that the Hulu vs. Every Other Streaming Service stat gives networks a better idea of where to sell their programming rights, to maximize both current profits and potential future viewership, as people (maybe) catch up on shows.

But advertising still accounts for a huge chunk of networks’ revenue from programming, and the further out from an episode’s live airing you look, the less likely a viewer is to have watched an ad.

Nevertheless, the shift in viewing habits among millennials has spurred several research firms -- including Nielsen – to develop what they call “total audience measurement,” counting all views, across all platforms, across a much longer period, regardless of whether the ads are the same. “There are still plenty of types of advertisers for whom it doesn’t matter when an ad is watched,” Buchwalter says. Think: beer, iPhones, prescription drugs. NBC Universal research chief Alan Wurtzel agrees: “You know, God didn’t say, ‘The number everyone must work with is the live number.’ It’s just sort of how things happened 50 years ago.”

Nielsen, for its part, says it’s totally capable of post-seven-day measurement, but it’s the advertising community that needs to come to an agreement with networks about using that data -- ad agencies are reticent about paying for views that might not do their clients any good, if they're, say, trying to get the word out about a new movie opening on a particular weekend.

Close, But No Cigar (Yet)

No one has quite achieved the total measurement holy grail yet, though Nielsen says its own initiative, which unites digital and linear audiences under one common metric, will launch in the first quarter of 2016. “If they do come out with that, there’ll be nobody doing more of a happy dance than me,” Wurtzel says. But Wurtzel and his counterparts aren’t waiting, and they and advertising agencies are sniffing around upstarts like Symphony, which can provide an even more vivid viewer profile.

Rather than using a box in the home that takes in audio signatures to identify programming, and gathering demographic data through viewer sign-in, like Nielsen does for its viewing sample, Symphony’s participants install an app on their phone, and the users simply bring the phone into the room with them when they watch television (which most people do anyway). “It’s like Shazam for TV,” Buchwalter says. It doesn’t just listen and categorize viewing via TV, though -- if the user gives the app permission, it tracks just about everything they do, including video watched on their phones, tablets and computers and consumer behavior.

taco-bell-millennials Symphony's app can track consumer behavior, like visits to Taco Bell after seeing a Taco Bell ad. Photo: Reuters

“We can tell,” Buchwalter says, “if a person who has been exposed to a Taco Bell ad in the morning, then goes to a Taco Bell later that day.”

Symphony is still setting up its own panel of representative viewers, but it does currently have 15,000 participants (who are compensated for this lack of privacy via a points reward system). Given that smartphone penetration among millennials now is approximately 90 percent, using something as unobtrusive and familiar as an app is a smart strategy to build out a large sample size.

And maybe -- just maybe -- it’ll prove to be more than a Band-Aid on a bullet hole for the TV industry.