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‘Lost,’ ‘Saturday Night Live’ and ‘Grey’s Anatomy’ were December’s three most popular entertainment TV programs streamed from tagged network websites and embedded network video players, according to (pdf) VideoCensus data from Nielsen Online.

In its first public release of ratings for online individual TV programs, Nielsen reported that ABC.com’s ‘Lost’ had 1.4 million unique viewers in December – the most among streamed online broadcast TV network entertainment programs. NBC.com’s ‘Saturday Night Live’ was a close second, with 1.1 million unique viewers, followed by ABC.com’s ‘Grey’s Anatomy‘ with 879,000 unique viewers in December.

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The network websites included were from broadcast networks that had tagged their online offerings: ABC.com, CBS Television, CWTV.com, FOX Broadcasting, and NBC.com. The rankings exclude Hulu, which currently does not report VideoCensus data at the program level.

Rankings include unique viewers who viewed a full episode, part of an episode or a program clip during the month.

“As I see it, the broad diversity of top television network entertainment programs online suggests that there is more to online viewership than a simple extension of the TV audience,” said Jon Gibs, VP of media analytics, Nielsen Online. “While the online popularity of some shows, like ‘Grey’s Anatomy’ suggests that some people are using the internet to catch up on programs they usually watch on TV, the online popularity of other programs like ‘Saturday Night Live,’ indicates that there is a web audience that might otherwise not watch these programs at all. These viewers are driven by a morning-after water-cooler effect.”

In contrast, wiewers of ‘Lost,’ Gibs added, appear to be using the internet to familiarize themselves with the show’s plot in advance of its TV return in January. The show did not air on TV in December at all.

Top Programs Ranked By Time Spent Online

When ranked by time spent per viewer in December, CWTV.com’s ‘Privileged’ ranks #1, with 215 minutes per viewer, followed by NBC.com’s Chuck and Lipstick Jungle, with 163 minutes and 153 minutes, respectively.

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“Audience size is clearly important, but we are still in a ‘taste-testing’ phase for online long form video,” said Gibs. “Consumers are starting a stream to see if they like it, and maybe they finish watching the program and maybe they don’t. Advertisers should be looking to balance overall reach with minutes per viewer, since those programs with longer viewing times are ones where consumers are much more likely to actually watch the advertising. Focusing on time will also surface shows like ‘The Young and the Restless,’ that advertisers might not normally look to.”

In related news, Nielsen Online also provided overall online video usage and top online brands ranked by video streams for December 2008. Month-over-month, all metrics were flat with a slight downtick in time per viewer.

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YouTube, by a large margin, remained the top online brand for video streams.

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About VideoCensus: Nielsen Online’s VideoCensus combines patented panel and census research methodologies to provide an accurate count of viewing activity and engagement along with in-depth demographic reporting. Online video viewing is tracked according to video player, which can be used on site or embedded elsewhere on the Web. For example, if a Saturday Night Live clip from NBC.com is embedded on a personal blog, that video would be attributed to NBC because of the NBC video player. A unique viewer is anyone who viewed a full episode, part of an episode, or a program clip during the month. A stream is a program segment. VideoCensus measurement does not include video advertising.

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