Scripted TV Is Dying a Slow Death

Broadcasters Are Increasingly Dependent Upon Live Programming

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Nearly three-quarters of NBC's gross ratings points derive from real-time programming including live episodes of 'The Voice.'
Nearly three-quarters of NBC's gross ratings points derive from real-time programming including live episodes of 'The Voice.'  Credit: Trae Patton/NBC
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At the risk of indulging in the sort of hyperbole that is the default mode of sports-related panel shows, live programming is pretty much the only thing keeping the Big Four broadcast networks from tumbling into the abyss.

According to a MoffettNathanson analysis of 2015-16 C3 ratings trends for TV programming throughout the day, sports now accounts for more than one-third (34%) of all deliveries of viewers in the 18-to-49 demo, making it the single most significant category by a wide margin. Another live segment, news, serves up 17% of targeted ratings points, tying drama for the No. 2 slot. When sports, news, one-off specials ("The Wiz Live!," "Grease Live") and live installments of reality shows like NBC's "The Voice" are lumped together, real-time programming now accounts for a staggering 61% of all broadcast GRPs.

In absolute terms, that's 440.8 million of the 718.9 million total 18-to-49 C3 impressions measured by Nielsen over the course of the past broadcast season.

The currency against which the vast majority of TV ad buys are made, C3 blends a very rough estimate of average commercial ratings with three days of time-shifted viewing to deliver the best approximation of actual ad deliveries.

On a network-by-network basis, NBC boasts the highest share of GRPs attributable to live programming, with nearly three-quarters (74%) of its targeted ratings owed to sports ("Sunday Night Football," Notre Dame football, the NHL), news, competition series and musical specials. That gives the Peacock a huge leg up in terms of commercial retention, as ad-avoidance is significantly less rampant in live programming. Runner-up Fox chalks up 70% of its deliveries to live fare, and sports alone accounts for 58% of that total. (Worth noting: Fox does not program the 10 p.m. hour, nor does it air a nightly newscast.)

Live programming draws about half (52%) of the GRPs to CBS's procedural- and comedy-heavy slate, while ABC, which is light on sports (12% of its GRPs), relies on news and reality shows to boost its live footprint (45%).

In crunching the numbers, analyst Michael Nathanson did express a certain caveat with regard to live leaders NBC and Fox. "While we'd argue that … those with the [greatest] share of live programming are best positioned, NBC and Fox's share is also indicative of a lack of success these two networks have had with their scripted programming," he said.

Mr. Nathanson's assessment is spot on. According to Nielsen live-plus-same-day data, the average demo rating for NBC's 11 freshman scripted series was a meager 1.0, which translates to just 1.27 million adults 18 to 49. Fox's 10 scripted newbies eked out a 0.9 in the demo. Commercial ratings weren't much more robust, as NBC's C3 average for its new shows was a 1.2, while Fox inched up a tenth of a point upon conversion to the currency. (Most shows gain about a tenth of a point when converting from live-same-day to C3 ratings, though NBC's "Blindspot" is an outlier, improving from a 1.8 in the demo to a 2.3.)

As Mr. Nathanson notes, sports are overwhelmingly consumed in real time, with 95% of all deliveries occurring as the action unfolds. The same cannot be said for scripted content; 42% of broadcast comedies are time-shifted, while more than half (52%) of drama GRPs are delayed. (It should go without saying that the DVR is the advertiser's worst enemy, as commercial deliveries are all but neutralized by the time-shifting devices.)

"From an advertiser's perspective, sports and news programming is an attractive way to find efficient reach of time-sensitive messages like new movie openings, sales promotions and new product launches," Mr. Nathanson said. Of course, sports CPMs don't come cheap -- in fact, TV's most expensive inventory (in Fox's late NFL games) actually resides outside of primetime -- and the news categories are largely limited to pharmaceuticals and insurance. Just as a for instance, 12 of the top 20 categories that advertised in "The CBS Evening News with Scott Pelley" in the last three weeks were pharma subsets: diabetes remedies, over-the-counter anodynes, bladder and gastrointestinal medicines, etc.

Over on the scripted side of the ledger, the quintessentially American format of the half-hour sitcom is fading fast. Per Nielsen, comedies in 2015-16 accounted for a scant 6% of all targeted GRPs, down from 10% five years ago. It's a snake-eating-its-own-tail scenario in that the networks are programming far fewer comedies, thereby depressing the supply, while viewership of the comedies that do exist is at an all-time nadir. By way of example, seven of the 13 new broadcast comedies put up fractional ratings, averaging less than a 1.0 in the demo over the course of the season. (CBS's "Life in Pieces," which enjoyed the benefit of its "Big Bang Theory" lead-in, bucked the trend, wrapping its first season as network TV's top-rated new series.)

NBC is notably deficient in the chuckles department, as sitcoms contribute just 4% of the network's overall GRPs, but comedy is shrinking across the broadcast landscape. Of the 45 new scripted series slated to air next season, only 36% are comedies; just four years ago, the comedy-drama split was closer to 50/50.

"The shift in consumption and programming patterns has all but killed the 30-minute broadcast sitcom," Mr. Nathanson notes. "Comedies have been hurt by a dearth of quality new programming. … There have been no new breakout shows to sell on the syndication market, [and] given the trends, we do not foresee any change to these dynamics."

In fact, the only extant comedy that is anywhere near to clearing a traditional syndication deal is "Brooklyn Nine-Nine," which will enter its fourth season on Fox with 68 episodes under its belt. (Hulu locked in an exclusive SVOD-streaming deal with the Andy Samburg workplace comedy back in 2014.) Other than that, the cupboard is bare.