Three of the Big Four broadcasters found smaller audiences in their first week back than they did at the start of last season, but you still heard the word "optimistic" thrown around freely. TV executives took comfort that each network had introduced a potential hit. Three shows also debuted to 20 million viewers or more, a scale that only two premieres achieved last year. And five new series ranked in the top 20 among advertisers' covted 18-to-49-year-old target, up from just two in fall of 2012.
Enough indicators existed to suggest that broadcast TV would have a better season ahead than the last time around, when they ultimately saw viewership drop 8%.
As Week Two dawned, however, those glimmers of hope had started to dim, with the series finale of AMC's "Breaking Bad" on Sunday becoming the most watched entertainment show of the night, topping the return of shows like ABC's "Revenge" and CBS' "Criminal Minds."
CBS's Monday night comedy lineup looked like it might become a problem, with newcomer "We Are Men" unable to capitalize on the strength of "How I Met Your Mother," now in its final season.
ABC's Tuesday-night "Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.," which came on very strong the week before, lost 30% of its live audience in its second outing. Fox's new Tuesday comedies "Brooklyn Nine-Nine" and "Dads," too, were lower than last year's "Raising Hope" and "Ben & Kate" in the same hour (of which only "Raising Hope" won renewal).
"My gut tells me the new season optimism currently being bandied about, will soon fade like the fall leaves," said Ira Berger, media director at the Richards Group, in an email.
"It won't ever go back to where it was," said Gary Carr, senior VP-national broadcast at TargetCast. "There's so much good stuff on cable… I don't think anything so far indicates there will be a reverse from last year and things will turn up. Expectations are different now."
While it's getting harder for broadcasters to hope for a major ratings turnaround this season, the industry does appear to be growing more comfortable with accounting for the growing time-shifting audience. For both both TV networks and advertisers, live viewing is necessarily less and less the be all and end all.
"As long as they are watching it doesn't matter if it is live or DVR; a rating point is a rating point as long as commercials are being watched," said Marc Morse, senior VP-national broadcast at RJ Palmer.
NBC was the only network to see growth in live audiences during premiere week, posting a 19% surge in total viewers from its first week last season. CBS was down 3% in live total viewers in its first week, while ABC dropped 4% and Fox plunged 13% (although most of Fox's premieres actually took place in the two weeks prior to "premiere week" this year).
But broadcasters are eagerly touting their playback ratings, which for some series have provided a nice padding in their first week.
Fox has already made "Sleepy Hollow" the first new show to get renewed for a second season, pointing to the strength of DVR playback. Its premiere got just over 10 million viewers on the day it aired, but three days of time-shifted viewing brought the total to 13.6 million, according to the network, making it Fox's biggest drama premiere since debut of "24" in 2001. When you include playback after three days, the premiere was watched by more than 22 million people, according to Fox. And in its second week, three-day playback retained 92% of the adults 18-to-49 from its premiere.
NBC's "The Blacklist" set a DVR record, adding 4.3 million viewers to its total premiere audience, the most ever for a broadcast series.
CBS said "The Big Bang Theory" and "Elementary" gained 4 million viewers with the inclusion of three-day DVR playback in their first week. "The Crazy Ones," which was already the biggest new debut of the season in terms of live viewers, also added 3.5 million viewers, bringing it to nearly 19 million viewers.
When factoring in DVR time-shifting, plus those who watched online, including Hulu, the first episode of "Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D." was watched by more than 17 million people, compared with 12.1 million who watched it on its first night.
While a boost from live-plus-three-day viewing is a positive, it's not the end of the story: Advertisers really care about the C3 rating, which measures viewing for average commercial minutes only, as opposed to all minutes of the program. Those C3 ratings are not made available until 15 to 20 days after programs air.
As of Friday afternoon, the networks were crossing their fingers, awaiting DVR ratings for the second week of the season, which could use a bit of help:
- On Monday night CBS's new sitcom "We Are Men" was 17% below the premiere of the now-canceled "Partners" a year ago in the 18-to-49 demo; "2 Broke Girls" matched its all-time low of a 2.4 rating in the 18-to-49 demo; "How I Met Your Mother" fell 16% in the demo; "Mom" slipped 12% and "Hostages" lost 17% of the younger audience from its debut.
- NBC's Thursday night was rough, with "Welcome to the Family" debuting to 3.3 million viewers; the premiere of "Sean Saves the World" watched by 4.9 million; and "Michael J. Fox Show" lost 20% of its audience, with the second episode watched by 5.9 million people.
- ABC's "Dancing With the Stars" continues to shed viewers, losing another 13% of the 18-to-49 audience.
But there were some bright spots. NBC's "The Blacklist" and Fox's "Sleepy Hollow" appear to have built a following. CBS's "The Big Bang Theory" remained steady with 17.8 million viewers tuning in for the second episode. The eye network's debut of the new comedy "The Millers" also attracted 13.2 million viewers. And ABC's "Scandal" returned Thursday night to 10.5 million viewers, a series high.