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May 26, 2013

TELEVISION: Nielsen lets networks play ratings games

Two days after CBS proclaimed its prime-time drama "NCIS" to be the season's No. 1 program for the first time, NBC Sports announced that its "Sunday Night Football" was, once again, prime-time television's No. 1 program.

Those seemingly contradictory claims can be made because of the kind of Nielsen rannygazoo that causes The Reporters Who Cover Television to look upon the end of the TV season with smoldering eyes and silent shudders.

When CBS claims that its crime procedural "NCIS" was the most-watched program, what the network means is that during the TV season — which began Sept. 24 and ended Wednesday night — "NCIS" had the most viewers on average: 21.3 million of them.

When NBC Sports claims that "Sunday Night Football" was the most watched program, the network division is including the franchise's average four "Sunday Night Football" broadcasts that aired before the start of the TV season — and one of them didn't even air on a Sunday night. Those extra broadcasts bring "SNF's" average up to 21.5 million viewers.

Nielsen, you see, allows a show to track its ratings for the season from the series premiere, even if the first telecast airs before the start of the TV season. That policy was put into place specifically to deal with preseason premieres.

NBC Entertainment's stats for the network's football do not include that preseason Wednesday "Sunday Night Football" game; nor does the division include the "Sunday Night Football" game that aired on Thanksgiving — a Thursday.

And all those "Sunday Night Football" games that aired before the start of the TV season do not get counted in NBC's prime-time season average.

NBC Sports is not the only TV division that evades the fair and square in this sickeningly craven way. CBS Entertainment has some answering to do, too.

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