Right now, network TV executives are huddled in boardrooms, trying to decide the future of shows such as ABC's Cupid and NBC's Medium.
But a key bit of information used to make those calls — how many people watched those shows' last episodes — has not been available this week from the only company that provides viewership ratings data to the TV industry, Nielsen Media Research.
Citing "server issues," Nielsen delayed the release of overnight ratings information — providing data from Sunday night's broadcasts late Wednesday and promising to issue statistics from Monday and Tuesday sometime today.
The result, is that the very currency of the TV industry has been switched off for long days, just when clients need it the most.
"This is a tough time, we know," said Nielsen spokeswoman Karen Gyimesi, who said the problem likely occurred at the company's sprawling data collection center in Oldsmar. "We're working around the clock to try and catch up."
According to memos sent to Nielsen customers, the company had a software problem inside servers that collect viewership information from TV sets across the country through telephone lines.
Though the problem mostly affected data from Saturday night, because the company releases data chronologically, it couldn't provide ratings for the rest of this week until the weekend problems were resolved, Gyimesi said.
The delay also affected markets where local TV stations get detailed overnight ratings on who watched shows, including the Tampa Bay area. And the problems surfaced at the start of the May "sweeps" ratings period, where viewership is used to set advertising rates at many local stations.
"It's mostly an annoyance right now," said Jennifer Yarter, research director at WFLA-Ch. 8. "This is the first time I can remember Nielsen has been dark this long for something that is their fault."
Last month, Nielsen was sued by the owner of Miami Fox affiliate WSVN, which claimed wildly inaccurate ratings cut the station's viewership by 40 percent and cost $100 million. Other industry experts have expressed unease over Nielsen's dominance of the TV ratings business, noting that the company told TV networks recently it may be undercounting those who watch television inside its sample households by up to 8 percent.
"The whole industry eats, sleeps and breathes these numbers. … Why didn't they have a backup system?" said Shari Anne Brill, a ratings analyst at New York ad buyer Carat USA. "As they used to say on I Love Lucy, I think they've got some 'splainin' to do."