The Good, The Bad and The Ugly: A Summer TV Mega-Recap

Zombies, Hackers and the Donald Brighten an Otherwise Bleak Season

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'Mr. Robot.'
'Mr. Robot.' Credit: USA Network/NBC Universal

The summer TV season has just about run its course, and if the Nielsen ratings are any indication, there wasn't much to love about the warm-weather interregnum.

Two years after the debut of CBS's "Under the Dome" suggested that broadcasters were wise to forego the age-old strategy of burning off the summer months with reruns and third-rate reality shows, the scripted solstice movement is in crisis. Only 2 of the Big Four's 14 scripted efforts averaged north of a 1.0 rating in the adults 18-to-49 demo, and the six returning shows were in aggregate down 40% versus the year-ago period.

And the summer bummer wasn't limited to the networks. Whereas cable once owned the steamy season, taking advantage of broadcast's quiet period in order to launch some of its biggest shows, a generalized ratings malaise has left nearly every returning scripted series gasping. Only one legacy ad-supported series, Adult Swim's anarchic 11 p.m. strip "Rick and Morty," is enjoying year-to-year ratings growth, and but for AMC's "Fear the Walking Dead," every single new scripted show on cable has failed to crack a 1.0 in the dollar demo. (Most can't even scratch out so much as one-half of a ratings point. Things fall apart; the center cannot hold.)

For all that, there were a few glimmers of hope to be spied in the Stygian darkness. Old-school competition series continued to punt rump and take names, and at least one break-out drama (take a wild guess) proved that achieving big reach isn't totally impossible outside the traditional 35-week TV window. It's not much to hang a season on, but it's better than nothing.

What follows is a roundup of summer's Good, Bad and Ugly -- the winners, the losers and those that were sent home without even the consolation of a participation trophy.

THE GOOD

"Fear the Walking Dead"

Let's start with a no braaaiiins-er. A third of the way through its inaugural six-episode run, AMC's bleak thriller is averaging 9.14 million viewers and an unheard-of 4.5 in the 18-to-49 demo. Not only has "Fear" lain waste to its Sunday night competition -- "Rick and Morty" is a distant second with a 1.0 average -- but it's also pacing well ahead of its progenitor. (According to Nielsen, the first two installments of "The Walking Dead" averaged 5.03 million viewers and a 2.6 rating, or about a third of what the show delivered in its fifth season.)

If "Fear" stands alone above all other summer series, it's about to get a lot less lonely at the top. Following a one-week hiatus, the show returns on Sept. 13, where it will go head-to-head with the ratings juggernaut that is NBC's "Sunday Night Football." Two of those "Sunday Night Football" broadcasts feature the Dallas Cowboys, a.k.a., the NFL's biggest TV draw. Two weeks later, ABC's "Quantico" jumps into the mix, although the Venn diagram of "Fear" fans and that show's target audience basically looks like a packet of Hostess Sno Balls.

Donald Trump

Say what you will about this sentient yam-turned-insult comic, but the Donald may the best thing to happen to summer TV since Fox launched "American Idol" back in June 2002. His participation in Fox News Channel's Aug. 6 Republican debate helped draw 24 million viewers, of whom 7.94 million were members of the core news demographic (adults 25-to-54). That alone may have been enough to secure FNC bragging rights as cable's top-rated network in August, but as a sidelight, Mr. Trump's boorish treatment of moderator Megyn Kelly may have helped push "The Kelly File" past "The O'Reilly Factor" in the demo. (That marked only the third monthly victory in nearly two years for Ms. Kelly's program, which usually runs a close second to her colleague's show.)

Now CNN is hoping its Sept. 16 GOP debate will be as big of a draw as that of its rival. The Turner news net could use all the help it can get; last month, as FNC posted the highest prime-time cable ratings, CNN finished 30th.

Mr. Trump's shoot-first-ask-questions-never rhetoric also has been a boon to late night talk show hosts like the Jimmies (Fallon and Kimmel), as well as HBO's John Oliver and Comedy Central's Larry Wilmore. Mr. Fallon thus far has scored the biggest coup in the daypart, landing the Republican frontrunner for a live interview on his Sept. 11 show. Waiting in the wings is Stephen Colbert, who will hit his mark on CBS's new-look "Late Show" this Tuesday. Mr. Colbert has said that in lieu of a platform from which to address the many peculiarities of the 2016 campaign, he's been reduced to "dry Trumping."

When and if the Trump circus will fold its tent is anyone's guess, but the longer he stays in the race, the greater the halo effect on the prime-time news and late night. Like it or not, the guy is yooge.

"Mr. Robot"

USA Network's dazzling mind-bender of a series not only catapulted the NBC Universal cable channel back into the currents of the cultural conversation, but it also established itself as the summer's top-rated zombie-free cable series. (Although you'd be forgiven for mistaking Rami Malek's weirdly hypnotic hacker/narcotics enthusiast, Elliot, for one of the coding dead.) Through the first seven episodes, "Mr. Robot" averaged a 0.7 in the 18-to-49 demographic, per the C3 currency data, up 40% from its live-same-day deliveries, making it the No. 1 show on the network. While there's still plenty of room to grow in season two -- Wednesday night's finale was nothing if not a meticulously plotted transitional episode -- the "fsociety" fan base is larger than Nielsen lets on. To date, "Mr. Robot" has been viewed 17.4 million times on digital platforms that do not allow for ad-skipping, chief among these being VOD (9.3 million transactions and counting).

NBC unscripted

That one of the few bright spots is related to a few behind-the-scenes scheduling moves speaks volumes about the summer doldrums. But NBC deserves a fruit basket and a few kind words for the way it has unlocked the potential in its radically dissimilar competition series "American Ninja Warrior" and "Hollywood Game Night." The Peacock shifted the hyperactive "Ninja" to the more family-friendly Monday 8 p.m. slot, whereupon it has averaged a 2.0 in the 18-to-49 demo, placing it in a five-way tie for second place with the likes of CBS's "Big Brother" and ABC's "The Bachelorette." "Ninja" is also one of a handful of broadcast shows to show year-over-year growth, improving 9% in the demo.

Meanwhile, deliveries of the Jane Lynch-hosted "Hollywood Game Night" have grown 14% in its new home leading out of the Tuesday night edition of "America's Got Talent."

Speaking of "America's Got Talent," which on Thursday morning was renewed for an eleventh cycle, Simon Cowell's brainchild is showing no signs of battle fatigue. With just a handful of episodes left in the season, the series is averaging 10.7 million viewers and a 2.4 rating among 18-to-49-year-olds, making it broadcast's most-watched and highest-rated summer series. (When the seven one-hour Wednesday episodes -- a miscellany of anniversary broadcasts, specials and live shows -- are factored in, the "America's Got Talent" rating in the demo slides to a 2.1.)

Sports

Powered by Team USA's vivisection of Japan in the Women's World Cup and Golden State's gutty win over LeBron James' Cleveland Cavaliers in the NBA Finals, big-ticket sports continued to subvert the "TV is Dead" narrative. Carli Lloyd's frankly bonkers hat trick (3 goals in 13 minutes!) spurred the U.S. to a 5-2 victory, a triumph that drew a record 22.3 million viewers and an 11.4 household rating. The tourney was a big test for Fox, which will host its first men's World Cup in 2018.

A few weeks before the Americans celebrated their latest title, Steph Curry and the Warriors put the finishing touches on their championship season, capping a six-game series that earned ABC an average draw of 20 million viewers and an 11.6 household rating. The latter figure, against which ABC makes its ratings guarantees to advertisers, now stands as the highest in the 13 years the network has carried the Finals.

THE BAD

"Aquarius"

Like every other network, NBC took its lumps in scripted, and it is in there that the network made its one baffling summer scheduling decision. Three weeks after renewing the low-rated freshman drama "Aquarius" for a second season, NBC shifted the under-achieving procedural to the TV purgatory that is Saturday night. The five re-located episodes eked out a dismal 0.2 in the 18-to-49 audience, trailing the canceled cult fave "Hannibal" by one-tenth of a ratings point. The move effectively cost "Aquarius" 71% of its gross ratings points, making the early renewal all the more curious. (For one thing, "Aquarius" is not a Universal production. Unless NBC's streaming tactic lured a fantastic number of viewers -- the network made each episode available online on the same day it premiered -- it's difficult to imagine what the upside is here.)

Fox unscripted

While its broadcast rivals were putting up big numbers with their well-worn reality shows, Fox this summer couldn't seem to catch a break. Now in its sixth cycle, "MasterChef" is averaging a 1.5 in the key demo, down 23% versus last year's edition. Meanwhile, the 12-year-old "So You Think You Can Dance" also lost 23% of its targeted viewers, dropping to a 1.0 in the 18-to-49 demo, and a revival of "Are You Smarter Than a Fifth Grader?" was greeted with near-universal indifference.

The new alternative programming team fared little better; of the two unscripted shows Fox launched this summer, only the warm-fuzzies home renovation strip "Home Free" has a shot at a renewal, having eked out a 0.9 rating in its first seven episodes. The Ryan Seacrest vehicle "Knock Knock Live," however, was an unmitigated disaster. Fox slammed the door on the series after the second episode drew a meager 0.5 among 18-to-49-year-olds. All told, deliveries for Fox's six-pack of unscripted summer shows average out to less than a single ratings point.

Pretty much everything on ad-supported cable, actually

As defined by the First Law of Cartoon Physics, a body in space will remain impervious to the imperatives of gravitational forces until said body becomes aware of its circumstances. Hot on the tail of the meeping Road Runner, Wile E. Coyote goes barrel-assing over the side of the cliff. He remains suspended in thin air, legs churning, and then he makes the grave error of looking down, whereupon the old 32 feet per second per second thing kicks in. The canyon floor awaits.

Cable this summer has had its doomed coyote moment. It looked down, and the earth rushed up to meet it before it had the chance to produce that little sign that reads "Eep!" No network was spared; many returning scripted shows saw as much as one-third of their 18-to-49 deliveries disappear. Dramas that were putting up big numbers only a year ago saw live viewing crater; FX's "The Strain" is down 40% in live-same-day, with a 0.6 average in the 18-to-49 demographic, while TNT's "The Last Ship" is off 31% to a 0.7 in the demo. Less successful shows wilted even faster: AMC's underappreciated "Halt and Catch Fire" has plummeted 36% to a 0.2, while Syfy's wobbly "Defiance" has lost nearly half of its 18-to-49 audience, dropping 46% to a 0.3.

As for the new series? Brutal. "Fear the Walking Dead" and "Mr. Robot" aside, the highest average rating for this year's crop of ad-supported freshman dramas is a lowly 0.4 (AMC's "Humans" and TNT's canceled "Complications"). Everything else is flirting with "scratch" territory, delivering between a 0.1 and a 0.3.

Oddly enough, the one scripted series that hasn't suffered a reversal of fortune is HBO's "True Detective." As much as critics seethed at the second season's overwrought dialogue and hambone performances, Nic Pizzolatto's much-derided genre exercise managed to grow 17% versus the McConaughey-Harrelson season, averaging a 1.2 rating in its eight-episode run. The only other scripted effort that kept its audience locked in was ABC's "Pretty Little Liars," which slipped just 2% to a 0.9 rating in a season marked by the big "A" reveal.

On the unscripted side of the ledger, the summer's most-hyped new entry, E!'s "I Am Cait," is averaging a respectable 0.6 in the demo, although that's nowhere near the anticipated result.

THE UGLY

Media stocks

August was sheer hell on media share prices, as an already volatile global economic freakout was exacerbated by concerns about how cord-cutting would impact the long-term valuations of TV network holding companies. While those fears perhaps were a bit overblown -- the first tremors in the market came after the Walt Disney Co. acknowledged that the previously bulletproof ESPN had lost a not-insignificant number of subscribers -- once the selloff began, every media company found itself dragged into the quicksand.

The S&P 500 Media index fell 14% in August, a steep decline when compared to the S&P 500's 6% drop, but many big TV brands suffered much greater losses. Viacom shares lost 28% of their value, while 21st Century Fox Class A shares fell 21%. Time Warner last month declined 19%, while Disney took a 5% hit.

For all the agita about subscriber churn -- Nielsen estimates that ESPN in the last year has lost 3.2 million paying customers, which would bring its overall penetration to some 92.9 million homes -- the market's reaction was more than a little hyperbolic. Even with its slightly abridged reach, ESPN this year alone will generate a staggering $7.37 billion in affiliate fees. And that doesn't begin to factor in ad sales revenue. Wall Street should leave the apocalypse scenarios to AMC.

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