TV Upfront

NBC wins the 2017-18 season, though the race was closer than it appears

By Published on .

The 2017-18 broadcast season officially came to a close on Wednesday night, and while each of the Big Four networks issued the usual hooey about how well they had fared over the course of the last 35 weeks, there's little of substance to celebrate in the final ratings numbers.

Such is the state of live TV viewing that almost no light gets in between the shows that are brought back for another season and those that end up on the scrapheap. According to Nielsen live-plus-same-day data, the average demo delivery for a show that's been re-upped for the coming season is a 1.2, which works out to 1.55 million adults 18 to 49. Three years ago, the average rating for a renewed series was a 1.9.

That there's almost nothing separating the doomed from the saved speaks volumes about the ongoing ratings erosion. The average draw for the 30 shows that have been terminated is a 0.8. As such, the gap between those that shall live to fight another day and those that have a date with the undertaker can accommodate only around 515,600 demographically desirable viewers. Three years ago, you could fit about twice many adults 18 to 49 (around 1.03 million) on the dividing line between the quick and the dead.

10-Year Track: 2008-09 through 2017-18
Source: Nielsen
Chart by Chen Wu/Ad Age.

That the division between televised success and failure is more a crack in the sidewalk than a yawning canyon is in many ways a function of necessity—and an acknowledgment that the legacy business model is evolving to emphasize ad revenue less.

On the one hand, if broadcasters canceled every low-rated show, they'd either be forced to dump billions of additional dollars into a development process with an 85 percent failure rate or pare their schedules down to 12 to 14 hours per week. Instead, the Big Four simply renewed more low-rated series than ever before, re-upping 19 shows that failed to deliver so much as a 1.0 in the demo. Three years ago at this time, only four fractional shows were salvaged.

On the other hand, it's fair to say that the push to diversify the business model has begun to lessen the significance of guaranteed commercial impressions. CBS in the first quarter reported that advertising accounted for 44 percent of its revenue, down from 51 percent in the year-ago period. The first to exploit the hitherto untapped riches tucked away in its distribution agreements—CBS is on pace to generate $2.5 billion in retransmission consent and reverse compensation fees by 2020—the network also has aggressively pursued a homegrown content scheme that helps pump out billions more on the back-end (licensing, streaming deals, etc.). When there's that much money to be made outside the ad market, CBS in many respects is no longer at the mercy of the incredible shrinking GRP.

There's more than one way to skin Schrödinger's cat.

None of which is to say that traditional TV advertising is in any mortal danger, although given all the recent talk about reducing commercial loads and junking the C3/C7 currency, it's clear that the network sales bosses are more than a little spooked by what the Nielsen data portends. And if the ratings charts weren't dispiriting enough (that three-way tie for last place is certainly unprecedented), the already paltry season-ending numbers are inflated by sports and the sort of time-shifting that generally precludes a good deal of ad impressions.

Not to take anything away from NBC—four wins in five seasons is a remarkable feat, especially when you consider the depth of the hole Jeff Zucker dug during the "managing for the margins" debacle—but eliminate the impact of Super Bowl LII and the 2018 Winter Olympics and the Peacock didn't exactly set the world on fire this season. Remove sports and news from the data stream, and suddenly the networks fall well short of the 2.0 mark, with NBC's entertainment programming averaging a 1.6 in the demo, while ABC (1.5), CBS (1.4) and Fox (1.2) fall in step behind it.

Top 25 Primetime Broadcast TV Programs of the 2017-18 Season
P2+ (millions) A18-49 year-ago avg year-over-year % chg
1 Sunday Night Football (NBC) 18.2 6.1 7.0 -13%
2
Roseanne (ABC) 13.5 3.5 1.3 +169%
3 Thursday Night Football (NBC)* 11.4 3.2 3.8 -16%
4 Thursday Night Football (CBS)* 10.6 3.1/3.7 3.6/4.2 -14%/-12%
5 The Big Bang Theory (CBS) 14.0 2.7/4.1 3.1/4.5 -13%/-9%
6 This Is Us (NBC) 10.2 2.7 2.7 flat
7
Young Sheldon (CBS) 12.3 2.1/3.3 1.5/2.3 +40%/+43%
8
Ellen's Game of Games (NBC) 8.17 2.1 1.6 +31%
9 The Voice (NBC) 9.91 2.0 1.6 +31%
10 Grey's Anatomy (ABC) 7.56 1.9 2.1 -10%
11
The Good Doctor (ABC) 9.77 1.8 0.7 +157%
12 Empire (Fox) 5.66 1.8 2.8 -36%
13 Survivor (CBS) 8.17 1.7/2.4 1.8/2.5 -6%/-4%
14 The Bachelor (ABC) 6.39 1.7 2.3 -26%
15
9-1-1 (Fox) 6.32 1.7 1.3 +31%
16
American Idol (ABC) 7.88 1.6 1.3 +23%
17 Modern Family (ABC) 5.69 1.6 2.1 -24%
18 Mom (CBS) 8.76 1.5/2.3 1.4/2.2 +7%/+5%
19 The Goldbergs (ABC) 5.59 1.5 1.7 -12%
20
Will & Grace (NBC) 5.39 1.5 1.2 +25%
21 The Simpsons (Fox) 3.52 1.5 1.8 -17%
22 NCIS (CBS) 13.0 1.4/2.2 1.7/2.7 -18%/-19%
23 60 Minutes (CBS) 10.9 1.4/2.1 1.6/2.3 -13%/-9%
24 Dancing with the Stars (ABC) 9.46 1.4 1.7 -18%
25 The Middle (ABC) 6.05 1.4 1.5 -7%
Source: Nielsen live-plus-same-day data, Sept. 25, 2017-May 23, 2018.
(CBS ratings include STD averages in the network's A25-54 target demo.)
*Ratings for broadcast TNF packages do not include NFL Network simulcast data.
-
New series. Year-ago averages refer to the shows that previously occupied their time slots.
Chart by Chen Wu/Ad Age.

Take the further step of removing the DVR data and the Big Four's seasonal entertainment demo average hovers around a 1.0 in live-same day, and a 1.3 in the C3 currency if you're being really generous with the rounding.

For all the tumult broadcasters have endured over the last, well, two decades, there are at least a few positive signs to be decoded within all the wrack and ruin of the ratings charts. For one thing, seven of the top 20 highest-rated shows are either newcomers, reclamation projects or, in the case of "Roseanne," a show that'd been off the air for so long that it may as well be considered a freshman series. (The recent mania for reboots has made a shambles of basic taxonomy.) That these shows managed to deliver significant gains when compared to the previous occupants of their time slots suggests that people will come back to broadcast TV if the networks give them a few compelling reasons to check back in every once in a while.

2017-2018 BROADCAST SEASON
Total Viewers % Change 18-49 Rating % Change
CBS 8.98 million -7% NBC 2.2 +5%
NBC 8.87 million +9% CBS 1.5 -17%
ABC 6.07 million -2% ABC 1.5 -6%
Fox 4.92 million -16% Fox 1.5 -21%
The CW 1.72 million -5% The CW 0.6 -13%
Source: Nielsen
Chart by Chen Wu/Ad Age.

Meanwhile, it's not as if the disruption of the TV model is unique to the broadcast nets while the rest of the ad-supported TV ecosystem goes off on its merry way. Cable ratings are just as susceptible to the vagaries of consumer behavior—so much so that even the vast majority of shows on such standout channels as AMC and FX would be hard pressed to compete with all but the lowest-rated series on the CW.

Only three ad-supported cable series deliver sufficient impressions to warrant placement alongside the top 50 broadcast shows … although one of them is a real doozy. As TV's third-highest-rated program, AMC's "The Walking Dead" would tuck in behind "Sunday Night Football" and "Roseanne," while companion series "Fear the Walking Dead" and FX's "American Horror Story" would occupy two spots near the end of the list.

As the dust settles on the season that was[n't], the network programmers are putting the finishing touches on their fall release schedules while the ad sales execs wait for the budgets to roll in. Depending on who's keeping score, the broadcast nets last year booked anywhere from $8.75 billion to nearly $10 billion in upfront commitments, and this after a season that was as resolutely underwhelming as the one that just passed. If notching $10 billion in advance sales over the course of six weeks is the measure of a "dead" business, then fit me for a coffin.

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