cable TV
A new report on global viewing habits underscores cable TV’s growing “content discovery” problem. Pablo Blazquez Dominguez/Getty Images

In TV Land, the coins of the realm are eyeballs and time. Denominations of these coins come in one, three and seven days — that’s the basis on which deals between networks and advertisers are made, “the currency,” as everyone calls it. The network promises to deliver a set amount of eyeballs to advertisers within one, three or seven days; the advertiser pays for them, and everyone goes home reasonably satisfied. At least, they did.

The problem the entire TV industry is facing is that you — the general “you” — are no longer watching ads at all, or watching them well after seven days. We’ve seen the percentage of prime-time viewing done live shrink down to around 50 percent, and we’ve seen just how much viewing is done without a cable box, whether through a network’s app or website or a streaming service like Hulu.

And now we have new data from the 2015-16 broadcast season, courtesy of ratings measurer Symphony Advanced Media, that shows exactly how big a problem this delayed viewing has become. The amount of a broadcast show’s audience that comes to an episode between eight and 35 days after it airs on TV can now top 50 percent. That’s a lot of eyeballs advertisers could use.

SymphonyAM used broadcast scripted series in this particular analysis; reality shows don’t see a whole lot of delayed viewing outside of seven days (part of what made them so popular for so long), and while plenty of ad money goes to cable, a lot of media scrutiny over ratings has focused on broadcast TV.

“There’s this dimension of everyone saying, ‘Oh, everything’s going in the crapper,’ ” says Charles Buchwalter, CEO of SymphonyAM. “But now we can go, hold on, not so fast.”

The shows that have the highest percentage of viewing done outside the “currency” — i.e., after the period advertisers are paying for, and possibly via a connected device like a Roku or Apple TV — are those you would expect. These are shows like the CW’s “Jane the Virgin” (a whopping 51 percent) and Fox’s “Brooklyn Nine-Nine” (a similarly eye-popping 50 percent), comedies that skew younger, as do the networks on which they air.

It’s not surprising that shows on younger-skewing networks see a higher percentage of delayed viewing, and those networks haven’t exactly been asleep at the switch when it comes to finding new ways to get credit for those audiences. Advertisers used to only count live viewing toward guarantees; deals were then struck for viewership within three days, and, now, seven. They’re getting paid more from selling the shows they own to streaming services.

Compounding the issue, though, is that it’s no longer just young viewers (those that fall in the 18-34 demographic) ditching traditional TV. The number of viewers falling in the 35-54 age range that are watching shows outside the currency is actually increasing at a faster rate than the number of young viewers.

SymphonyAM looked at the increase in delayed viewing across all demographics from the last three months of 2015 through the first three months of 2016. “Not only was there a pretty dramatic increase, it was across all demos,” Buchwalter says. As those older viewers have become the last hope of live TV (sans sports), this could be a disturbing trend.

Making money from these laggard eyeballs isn’t as simple as saying, “OK, these viewers count.” Measuring the effectiveness of an ad that appears across a dozen different devices isn’t easy — it’s something that’s still being worked on, by many companies, including SymphonyAM and Nielsen, the company whose ratings are the industry standard.

Even when the networks solve that problem, another one arises: The more people who watch a show in places outside of a streaming service like Netflix, the more possible it is that a streaming service looking to buy the show for its library might think its value is now less.

“It’s an interesting ecosystem,” Buchwalter says. Alternately: If it ain’t one thing, it’s another.

Here’s the full chart of SymphonyAM’s data, broken down by show and network: