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We can't wait to see 'Game of Thrones': Philly by the TV numbers

It's not just what we're watching, but when and how, that matters as networks grapple with a rapidly changing business model.

“Game of Thrones” stars (from left) Nathalie Emmanuel, Peter Dinklage, Conleth Hill, Emilia Clarke, and Jacob Anderson in Season 7 on HBO.
“Game of Thrones” stars (from left) Nathalie Emmanuel, Peter Dinklage, Conleth Hill, Emilia Clarke, and Jacob Anderson in Season 7 on HBO.Read moreMACALL B. POLAY / HBO

We're a Game of Thrones kind of town.

Unlike, say, Phoenix — where the HBO fantasy drama didn't make Nielsen's two most recent weekly lists of the top shows people in that TV market watch the same day they're on — we want our Starks, Targaryens, and Lannisters, and we want them now. Thrones, whose seventh season ends next Sunday, has been No. 1 or No. 2 (after preseason football) in the Philadelphia area for live or same-day viewing in recent weeks. An estimated 436,000 people locally watched the newest episode last Sunday, up from 373,000 the week before.

Read more: "Eastwatch" serves up crabs and revelations

And our rooting interest in ABC's The Goldbergs, based on the Jenkintown boyhood of its creator, Adam F. Goldberg, apparently extends to summer. A Goldbergs rerun Aug. 9 was in a six-way tie for 17th place in the week's same-day rankings, with 126,000 viewers locally. Of the top 25 TV markets, only Boston and Atlanta had the Phillycentric family sitcom listed among their most-watched shows that week.

The city of Philadelphia may recently have slipped in population rankings behind Phoenix, but our region remains the fourth-largest of the 210 markets Nielsen measures, with an estimated 2,942,800 TV households for 2017. Phoenix? It's ranked 12th.

Plus, we may watch slightly trendier TV than they do in the desert, although I'm not sure I'd want to brag too much about our consumption of CBS's Big Brother to Arizonans, who tune in to the dysfunctional ant farm, too, but who are apparently a little fonder of  Jeopardy! and Wheel of Fortune for their same-day viewing. (Reality TV, like sports, tends to do well in measures of live-plus-same-day viewing.)

Both cities agree with NBC that America's Got Talent. The reality-competition show was No. 2, behind preseason football, in Phoenix for same-day viewing for the week that included Aug. 8, and No. 3, behind football and Game of Thrones, in Philadelphia.

If only TV ratings really were that simple.

After spending 10 days this month at the Television Critics Association's semiannual meetings on the West Coast, I came away with plenty of information about what we're watching, and how and when we're watching it, but less of a handle than ever about what counts as success in a medium that's on pace to bring us more than 500 scripted shows this year.

It wasn't so long ago that I could look at Nielsen's estimates of how many people  nationally watched a show at the time it aired, and predict with reasonable accuracy whether it would be around next season or — if the numbers were low enough — next week. Now, so many more things factor into those decisions, including how many people time-shift their viewing, that I'm often as surprised as anyone by what's canceled and renewed.

Ratings "used to be the sole barometer of our success.  Now it's just the starting line," CBS entertainment president Kelly Kahl told reporters this month.

"Today, we're in the eyeballs business, just like YouTube, Google, and Facebook. Demos [demographic factors like age, gender, and income]  have a purpose, but they're smaller and a less significant part of our business every day," Kahl said.

One reason is that advertising, even for a broadcast network like CBS, isn't the only source of revenue.

Shows that are popular on the network also "generate revenue on traditional and digital platforms, both here and around the world," he said. "NCIS was recently named the most‑watched show on the planet; 14 years old and still as popular and in demand as ever. Freshman hit Bull was the most‑watched new series last year and is already sold in 200 territories around the world."

And then there's Blue Bloods, the Friday night family cop drama that begins its eighth season Sept. 29. In a business model that places a premium only on  reaching the 18- to 49-year-olds advertisers tend to target, the Tom Selleck show looks like only a middling success. Last season, it was No. 43 on broadcast TV in 18-49, although its total viewership — an average of 14 million a week — put it at No. 8.

But that's not where Blue Bloods stops for CBS, whose company owns and distributes the show. All its previous seasons, Kahl noted, are licensed for streaming on Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon. (All episodes are also available on the network's subscription streaming service, CBS All Access.)

"Blue Bloods, killing it in the digital space," he said. "Eyeballs still matter."

What also matters to network decision-makers isn't just how a show performs initially, but over time, as viewers continue to watch what they've recorded or  find them through programmers' or cable companies' on-demand platforms.

NBC entertainment chairman Robert Greenblatt used his network's freshman hit This Is Us, whose pilot from last fall has been seen by some 32 million people and whose overall season, he said, was averaging 26 million viewers as of mid-July, to argue that focusing on reporting same-day ratings no longer makes sense.

"I know the general consensus for a while has been that the broadcast networks are aging dinosaurs just getting closer to extinction," he said, but "in our core demo [18-49], more people watched our original programming this year than they did last year, and that's without a Super Bowl or an Olympics to inflate the comparison."

Looking back seven years, "the year the iPad came on the market and Netflix started offering a standalone streaming service, our entertainment programming is actually up 12 percent," Greenblatt said.

How we're watching TV, though, continues to change, and while the refusal of streaming services to report ratings makes it hard to say exactly how they're doing against more traditional outlets, Nielsen says an estimated 53 percent of households have access to Netflix, up from 33 percent in 2014. Amazon in the same period has grown from 11 percent to 31 percent, and Hulu from 6 percent to 13 percent.

People under 35 – technically those 2-34 – are estimated to be spending more than a fifth of their viewing time with streaming content.

In a presentation  during TCA, Brian Fuhrer, Nielsen's senior vice president for product leadership, singled out gaming consoles as the device that first introduced streaming services to many households.

"People were using them to play games. And they were enhanced to where they could start to stream. And we saw a big uptick, and they really started to compete with DVRs," he said. In the last couple of  years, Nielsen's seen  consumers embracing devices like Roku and Apple TV that bring streaming content to their TVs. "And what's replacing that now is the idea of smart [internet-capable] televisions," with consumers taking their Rokus and other devices and "moving them to other sets to make them smart."

Where do we fit in?

In the Philadelphia market, Nielsen estimates that as of May:

  1. 34 percent of households have a smart TV and  65 percent a tablet, both of which put us  a bit above the national average.

  2. Our TV sets, smart or not, get a workout: five hours, 10 minutes a day — four hours, 2 minutes of which is spent watching live TV. Other uses: watching time-shifted TV (average of 31 minutes), multimedia devices such as Roku or Apple TV (18 minutes), game console (15 minutes), and watching DVDs (4 minutes).

    • 63 percent typically watch local news, just slightly below the national average.

Live Plus Same Day Rankings for Viewers 2 and older in Philadelphia from Aug. 7-13.*

  1. Eagles-Packers preseason opener, NBC10.

  2. Game of Thrones, HBO.

  3. America's Got Talent, NBC.

  4. The Bachelorette, ABC.

  5. The Story of Diana, Part 1, ABC.

  6. Big Brother (Thursday), CBS.

  7. Big Brother (Wednesday), CBS.

  8. The Story of Diana, Part 2, ABC.

  9. 60 Minutes, CBS.

  10. Shark Tank, ABC.             *Source: Nielsen