The 2014-15 broadcast TV season has begun receding in the rearview mirror, as Wednesday night marked the official end of the campaign that began 35 weeks ago. And while each network can lay claim to at least one legitimate hit, the final Nielsen data would suggest that the Big Four are waging an ongoing war of attrition.
First, the big picture. According to Nielsen, NBC has eked out its second straight victory in the seasonal ratings race, averaging a 2.4 in the adults 18-to-49 demo. But the Peacock edged CBS by one-tenth of a point, or 122,000 viewers. As CBS Corp. CEO Les Moonves said last week, "that's less than Paterson, N.J."
Despite broadcasting the Super Bowl, NBC's ratings fell 11% from a 2.7 in 2013-14, while CBS dipped 4% from a 2.4.
ABC was the only network to demonstrate year-over-year growth, improving 5% to a 2.2, while Fox endured what can only be characterized as an annus horribilis, plummeting 24% in the dollar demo to a 1.9. In a sense, Fox and NBC have switched places at the poles; from September 2004 to May 2012, Fox was the No. 1 network, a period that coincided with NBC's eight-year tenancy in the broadcast basement.
This marked the third straight season in which not a single broadcaster managed to average a 3.0 in the demo. The last time one of the nets drew a 3.0 during the course of a single week was during the period spanning Feb. 15-22, which was capped by ABC's broadcast of the Academy Awards.
The shrinking demo deliveries coincide with an ever-greying broadcast audience. Three of the Big Four nets now serve an audience with a median age at or beyond the terminal point of the oldest transactional demo (CBS is now at 59 years, while ABC and NBC are both at 54), and even Fox is nearing AARP territory (49).
Most watched overall
Of course, the 18-49 numbers don't tell the whole story. CBS won its target demo, averaging a 3.2 rating with adults 25-54, topping NBC (3.0), ABC (2.7) and Fox (2.3). And CBS once again was far and away the most-watched TV network, averaging 11.3 million nightly viewers over the course of the season, giving it a 30% edge over runner-up NBC (8.63 million), besting ABC by 41% (7.96 million) and nearly doubling Fox's reach (5.83 million).
At the individual series level, the highest-rated scripted broadcast show was Fox's "Empire," which averaged a staggering 5.1 in the 18-49 demo during its meteoric freshman run. NBC's "Sunday Night Football" was once again the No. 1 overall show, posting an average 7.7 in the demo, although that particular stat has little impact on the network's ad sales performance. (NBC makes ratings guarantees to advertisers in its NFL package based on household ratings; "SNF" drew a prime-time best 12.6 household rating, trailing only the Sunday-afternoon late national games on Fox (15.5) and CBS (14.8).
While we're tossing around asterisks, the highest-rated scripted series on all of TV was once again AMC's "The Walking Dead," which in its fourth season scared up a 7.4 in the 18-49 demo.
Top 10, bottom 10
All told, the top 10 scripted broadcast shows were: "Empire" (5.1), "The Big Bang Theory" (4.3), "Modern Family" (3.1), How to Get Away with Murder" (3.0), "Scandal" (2.9), "NCIS" (2.4), "The Blacklist" (2.4), "Grey's Anatomy" (2.4), "Scorpion" (2.3) and "Mom" (2.3).
The bottom tier: "Weird Loners" (0.6), "American Odyssey" (0.6), "Glee" (0.7), "Mulaney" (0.7), "Battle Creek" (0.8), "Gracepoint" (0.8), "The Slap" (0.8), "A to Z" (0.8), "Red Band Society" (0.9) and "Allegiance" (0.9).
As an advertiser, the best bang for the buck was undoubtedly the musical drama "Empire," which boasted unprecedented weekly ratings growth but could be had for, well, a song. Last summer, media buyers said that a 30-second spot in "Empire" cost no more than $140,000 a pop, and while the rates increased significantly in scatter, it remained a hell of a bargain. (Fox ad sales boss Toby Byrne will obviously rake in a premium for time in season two of "Empire," which returns this fall.)
While the aforementioned sub-1.0 shows were obviously a bad bet, the biggest waste of resources appears to have been "Gracepoint." With an estimated average unit cost of around $165,000 per :30, the reboot of the BBC detective series was the priciest flop on the list.
Of the shows that returned for 2014-15, only seven posted year-over-year ratings growth. NBC's "Undateable" rose 55% in its sophomore season, while "Parks and Recreation" closed shop up 15% and "Parenthood" ended up 2%. ABC's "The Goldbergs" improved by a margin of 30%, season two of Fox's "MasterChef Junior" was up 19%, the CW's "Arrow" grew 11% and CBS's "Mom" was up 10%.
On the other side of the ledger, each network had at least one returning show that crumbled in 2014-15. Fox's "Sleepy Hollow" took the biggest hit, tumbling 41% from its freshman year rating, while NBC's "The Biggest Loser" slimmed its demo deliveries down by 38%. CBS's "NCIS: Los Angeles" dropped 35% in its sixth season, while ABC's "Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D." was less than super, falling 34%.
All four series were renewed for 2015-16.