By the Numbers: A Look Back at the 2015-16 Broadcast Season

In a War of Attrition, CBS Sweeps the Demos

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Capping a broadcast season that came and went without the establishment of a single new breakout hit, CBS secured a 2015-16 ratings sweep with its stable of high-flying veteran series.

According to the final Nielsen averages for the 35-week regular season, CBS beat all comers in the 18-to-49 demo, averaging a 2.3 rating in Nielsen's live-plus-same-day measure, unchanged from the season a year earlier. CBS beat last year's top dog, NBC, because the Peacock Network fell 13% to a 2.1 in the demo. And both outpaced Fox, flat with a 1.9, and ABC, down 18% to a 1.8. The CW moved up to fifth place in the 18-to-49 demo, edging the Spanish-language network Univision by 20,000 viewers. Although both networks rounded up to a 0.8 in the demo, the CW was flat versus a year ago, while Univision's prime time ratings plummeted 27%.

All told, the Big Four nets averaged a cumulative 8.1 in the advertiser-coveted demo, marking an 8% decline from last season's 8.8.

2015-2016 SEASON
Total Viewers % Change
CBS 10.9 million -4%
NBC 8.11 million -6%
ABC 6.82 million -14%
FOX 5.78 million -1%

Adults 18-49 Rating % Change
CBS 2.3 flat
NBC 2.1 -13%
Fox 1.9 flat
ABC 1.8 -18%
Source: Nielsen

While the 18-to-49 win gives CBS bragging rights for the second time in the last four seasons, the more relevant stat for the Eye Network is the 3.1 rating it hung up in its target demo, viewers 25 to 54. CBS's margin of victory in the relevant age group was significantly wider, as NBC averaged a 2.7, while Fox and ABC both managed a 2.3.

As much as CBS was given a boost by its coverage of Super Bowl L -- it averaged a 7.7 in the 18-to-49 demo during the seven days leading up to and including Super Bowl Sunday -- its general entertainment programming also did a lot of heavy lifting. For example, season nine of "The Big Bang Theory" was the season's No. 2 scripted broadcast series, averaging a 3.7 rating among adults 18 to 49, not to mention a 5.3 in CBS's target demo, while season 13 of "NCIS" tied for fifth place with a 2.2.

CBS also boasted the season's highest-rated new scripted show in "Life in Pieces," which averaged a 2.0 in the 18-to-49 demo in its "Big Bang" lead-out slot. Other big draws were "Thursday Night Football," which in its second season averaged a 5.9 rating, or a 4.1 when NFL Network's simulcast numbers are eliminated, and cycles 31 and 32 of "Survivor," which drew a 2.1 and a 2.0, respectively.

The weekly ratings figures underscore how much NBC relies on "Sunday Night Football." After winning 15 of the first 17 weeks, NBC would go on to win just two weeks in the back half of the season, and tie for top honors in a third. At midseason, NBC was cruising along with a 2.7 average; once the NFL season wrapped, the network saw its average in the latter 17 weeks drop all the way to a 1.3 rating. (Not helping matters: The tenth cycle of "The Voice" saw its ratings drop 17% when compared to the year-ago spring cycle.)

Of course, NBC isn't the only network to endure a few dead pockets in its prime time lineup. ABC's policy of avoiding low-impact repeats by scheduling lengthy hiatuses took a toll on sophomore drama "How to Get Away with Murder," which saw its live-plus-same-day deliveries plummet 37%, and lead-in "Scandal" also took a hit, losing 29% of its targeted ratings points. Nor could ABC find a means to draw viewers back to its moribund Tuesday 10 p.m. slot, which averaged a 0.9 rating over the course of the season, (no) thanks to the deadly trilogy that was "Wicked City," "Of Kings and Prophets" and "Beyond the Tank." Fox's lineup is riddled with question marks, and with "American Idol" mothballed, it faces the Herculean task of replacing 40 hours of airtime next spring.

Individual struggles aside, broadcasters were united in their failure to whip up interest in most of their new shows. The live-same-day average for all 41 freshman series was a woeful 1.1 rating, which translates to 1.39 million adults 18 to 49. For the sake of perspective, Nielsen pegs the total demographic universe at 126.8 million citizens.

10-YEAR RATINGS TRACK
2006-2007 through 2015-2016
*Primetime, adults 18-49
**3-month WGA strike resulted in shortened orders for 47 scripted shows

Here's another end-of-days stat: More than one-third (36%) of the 138 primetime broadcast shows that aired during the 2015-16 season put up fractional numbers. In other words, 49 shows failed to average as much as a 1.0 in the demo advertisers most want.

And another: Excluding primetime NFL packages, the average rating for a renewed series this season was a 1.4.

One more: Live viewing now accounts for only 51% of all TV consumption, compared to 81% in 2008. And unfortunately, but for a few outliers, the networks aren't winning back the vast majority of the commercial impressions lost to time-shifting. Fox's "Empire" is a rare exception, improving on its already gaudy live-same-day average (4.4) with a jaw-dropping 5.6 in the C3 currency. (Season six of TV's No. 1 scripted series, AMC's "The Walking Dead," hung up a 6.3 in C3.) ABC's "Scandal" jumped 25% from a 2.0 in live-same-day to a 2.5 in C3, while "How to Get Away with Murder" stopped some of the bleeding by improving 26% from an initial 1.9 rating to a 2.4 in the currency. NBC's "Blindspot" sees a 20% lift upon conversion from live-same-day to C3 … and that's where the list of big gainers ends.

CBS's demo deliveries, superior scheduling and overall stability should go a long way toward the network's sales team securing a greater share of upfront dollars than its rivals, but strength in scatter and a growing discontent with digital buys will also make this a summer sell-off to remember.

"Everyone is now coming to the same conclusion that we came to a long time ago: Broadcast television remains the single best and most effective medium for advertising," CBS Corp. President-CEO Les Moonves told buyers at last week's upfront presentation. "Digital advertising sometimes lacks accuracy and credibility. As a result, there is a clear shift in advertising back to network television."

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