As live TV ratings continue to crumble in the face of time-shifted viewing and the rapid adoption of over-the-top streaming services, advertising impressions are also getting pretty dinged up. But whereas the declines in broadcast and cable commercial deliveries were once far more manageable (a 2% dip here, a 3% drop there), the networks are now weathering double-digit depressions.
Through the end of the third quarter, deliveries of viewers in the crucial 18-to-49 demo are down 10% versus the year-ago period, according to Nielsen C3 data.
The currency against which nearly all TV ad transactions are made, C3 blends a very rough estimate of average commercial ratings with three days of time-shifted viewing; as such, it offers networks, buyers and marketers the best approximation of actual ad deliveries.
Broadcast took the bigger hit in the summer quarter, as C3 prime-time ratings fell 9% to an average of 5.54 million adults 18 to 49, which works out to an aggregate 4.4 rating in the demo. That's down from 6.11 million viewers, or a 4.8 rating, in Q3 2014.
The broadcast C3 ratings include data culled from a week and a half of the new fall TV season. ABC in Q3 was the most stable of the Big Four Networks, slipping 3% to an average 0.9 in the demo, followed by NBC (-6%, 1.5). Fox's prime time ratings dropped 15% in Q3, to a 0.9, while CBS was down 17% to a 1.0.
Summer ratings are a fraction of what the networks draw during the fall and winter; for example, NBC averaged a 2.6 C3 demo rating in the fourth quarter of 2014, while CBS delivered a 2.0, ABC drew a 1.9 and Fox put up a 1.7. In the aggregate, the Big Four in Q4 2014 averaged 10.5 million adults 18 to 49, or an 8.3 rating -- nearly double what they'd go on to deliver in Q3 2015.
Collective cable C3 deliveries were down 8% in the third quarter of 2015, dropping to 17.1 million members of the demo, or a 13.5 rating. Among the biggest winners were Cooking Channel, which soared 43% in its targeted adults 25-54 demo; FS1, up 28% in 18-to-49 C3 on the back of its college football coverage; AMC, up 13% thanks in large part to rabid interest in its new series "Fear the Walking Dead"; and Discovery Channel, which ticked up 1% in the relevant 25-to-54 demo on the strength of its annual Shark Week stunt.
At the conglomerate level, cable's biggest losers in C3 were Viacom (-11%), A&E Networks (-14%) and NBC Universal's suite of entertainment and lifestyle nets (-16%).
Over the span of the third quarter, cable saw its overall commercial load increase 4%, as networks took advantage of a strengthening scatter market by carving out more inventory for their clients. Broadcasters were more sober in their approach, with the Big Four's overall spot load inching up just 1%.
If the ongoing commercial ratings slide is cause for concern, it would appear that the days of making even nominal gains are over and done with. Discounting Olympics quarters, TV hasn't demonstrated organic year-over-year growth since Q3 2011. That coincides with broadcast's last monster Premiere Week, when CBS's "2 Broke Girls" delivered a 7.1 live-same-day rating leading out of the first Kutcher-centric "Two and a Half Men" (10.7), ABC's "Modern Family enjoyed its biggest opening (6.1) and "Fox's "New Girl" launched with a 4.8 in the demo.
Four short years ago, even the duds were relatively huge. CBS canceled its freshman sitcom "¡Rob!" after eight episodes, and it averaged 11 million viewers and a 3.3 in the 18-49 demo.