TV Upfront

Sleepy, Hollow: What You Won't Hear at This Year's TV Upfronts

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With two-thirds of the 2017-18 broadcast campaign on the books, the TV business is in the very thick of pilot season, the annual ritual in which fiscal improvidence and an excess of creative caution join forces to relieve the networks of around $500 million in development costs. Thus far in the process, 76 scripted projects are in the running for the upcoming season, and if precedent is anything to go by, less than half of them will be picked up to series. In other words, advertisers and media buyers in mid-May will be pitched 35 or so variations on the zany workplace sitcom, the gritty police procedural, the whimsical genre mash-up and the gratuitous nostalgia exercise that is the reboot/revival.

In between cut-downs of shows about CIA werewolves, psychic flatfoots and Dracula, DDS, the broadcast bosses will indulge in the usual amplified boasting about how splendid everything is, and somehow each and every network will have figured out a way to position itself as TV's top banana. The PR types clustered around the theatre will punctuate even the most specious claims of ratings dominance with the sort of sustained hooting rarely heard outside an aviary, buyers and clients will roll their eyes and sigh a bit, and the members of the press who've been corralled at a safe remove from anyone worth speaking to will dutifully tweet their impressions of the proceedings to their followers, of whom roughly a third will be in attendance.

Pre-scripted ballyhoo aside, broadcasters in May will have little cause for celebration. Except for NBC, which last month sucked all the air (and ratings points) out of the room with its back-to-back coverage of Super Bowl LII and the 2018 Winter Olympics, broadcast impressions continue to Costanza, and three of the Big Four networks are on pace to post record seasonal lows in their respective target demos. At present, only two scripted series are averaging 3 million adults 18 to 49 or better in live-same-day Nielsen measures, and nearly 40 percent of the 78 scripted shows that have aired since the season began are delivering fractional ratings. Put another way, they reach less than 1% of the demo most coveted by TV advertisers.

That ratings nugget is just one of a myriad facts that will remain unacknowledged during Upfront Week. What follows is a list of some of the things that advertisers may want to bear in mind while they take in the networks' big springtime spectaculars at Radio City Music Hall, the Beacon Theatre, Carnegie Hall and Lincoln Center.

Top 25 Primetime Broadcast TV Shows
Through Week 24 of the 2017-18 Season
Total viewers (millions) A18-49 year-ago avg* % chg
1 Sunday Night Football (NBC) 18.2 6.1 7.0 -13%
2 Thursday Night Football (NBC)** 11.4 3.2 3.8 -16%
3 Thursday Night Football (CBS)** 10.6 3.1/3.7 3.6/4.2 -14%/-12%
4 The Big Bang Theory (CBS) 14.3 2.9/4.3 3.3/4.7 -12%/-9%
5 This Is Us (NBC) 10.2 2.7 2.6 +4%
6
Young Sheldon (CBS) 12.6 2.2/3.4 1.6/2.4 +38%/+42%
7 Grey's Anatomy (ABC) 7.91 2.1 2.2 -5%
8 The Voice (NBC) 10.3 2.1 2.4 -12%
9
Ellen's Game of Games (NBC) 8.17 2.1 1.6 +31%
10 Empire (Fox) 5.85 1.9 3.2 -41%
11 The Simpsons (Fox) 4.61 1.9 2.1 -10%
12
The Good Doctor (ABC) 9.83 1.8 0.7 +157%
13 Survivor (CBS) 8.31 1.7/2.4 1.9/2.6 -11%/-8%
14 The Bachelor (ABC) 6.39 1.7 2.3 -26%
15 Modern Family (ABC) 5.95 1.7 2.2 -23%
16
9-1-1 (Fox) 6.25 1.6 1.3 +23%
17
Will & Grace (NBC) 5.73 1.6 1.3 +23%
18 The Goldbergs (ABC) 5.77 1.5 1.8 -17%
19 60 Minutes (CBS) 10.6 1.5/2.2 1.8/2.6 -17%/-15%
20 Mom (CBS) 8.86 1.5/2.3 1.5/2.3 ––
21 NCIS (CBS) 13.2 1.4/2.3 1.7/2.6 -18%/-12%
22 Dancing with the Stars (ABC) 9.56 1.4 1.7 -18%
23 Chicago Med (NBC) 7.01 1.4 1.3 +8%
24
Good Girls (NBC) 5.67 1.4 1.4 ––
25 Bob's Burgers (Fox) 3.09 1.4 1.1 +27%
Source: Nielsen live-plus-same-day data, Sept. 25, 2017-March 11, 2018
(CBS ratings include STD averages in the network's A25-54 target demo)
*Comparisons for new series are made against the year-ago time slot occupants
**ratings for broadcast TNF packages do not include NFL Network simulcast data
-
New series

Everyone is in the same boat, and that boat isn't terribly seaworthy

According to Nielsen live-plus-same-day data, NBC through March 11 has doubled last-place ABC's seasonal deliveries among adults 18 to 49, averaging a 2.2 rating to ABC's 1.1. Thanks to its stewardship of the Super Bowl and the 18-night PyeongChang Games, the Peacock's lead over Fox (1.3) and CBS (1.2) is just as insurmountable, but NBC's position also has been bolstered by its bragging rights to five of the season's top 10 highest-rated primetime programs.

Remove all live sports and high-impact events such as the Academy Awards, Golden Globes and Grammy Awards, however, and suddenly broadcast's playing field is more level than the slate of a billiards table.

NBC's stable of scripted programming and competition series is averaging a 1.2 live-same-day rating in the 18-to-49-year-old demo, tying CBS and giving both networks a statistically negligible edge over the rest of the pack. Bringing up the rear (as it were) with a 1.1, ABC's standard primetime lineup includes broadcast's highest-rated new drama ("The Good Doctor") and the No. 2 returning drama ("Grey's Anatomy"), while Fox boasts the third-strongest drama in "Empire" and the stealth success that is "9-1-1," which has improved the deliveries in its 9 p.m. Wednesday time slot by 23 percent.

All told, when stripped of their most reliable ratings vehicles, the Big Four nets are averaging a meager 1.1 rating, which translates to around 1.4 million adults 18 to 49. (CBS, which writes the bulk of its guarantees to advertisers against the 25-to-54 crowd, is averaging a 1.8 rating in live-same-day, good for around 2.2 million viewers in that slightly grayer demo.) But even when the DVR-goosed live-plus-seven-day numbers are folded into the mix—a data stream that is all but irrelevant to advertisers, given that it does not provide any insight into commercial impressions—NBC, CBS, Fox and ABC are barely eking out a 1.8 in 18-to-49, down 25 percent from the analogous period just three years ago.

All of which goes a long way toward illustrating why Fox placed such an unqualified emphasis on its sports properties during last year's upfront presentation, and why its parent company has signaled a desire to go all-in on live sports and news by way of a proposed sale of its studio and cable assets to the Walt Disney Co. Time-shifting and the atomization of entertainment content have conspired to loosen TV's death grip on the culture, and nothing that comes of this or any future development cycle is going to reverse the process.

Given their druthers, no one would ever see your ad

The alacrity with which viewers zip through commercials when watching TV stored on their DVRs suggests that an awful lot of people believe ads are unnecessary intrusions that should have been left behind in the analog age. At the very least, the Nielsen data makes a strong case for the theory that the time we allocate to consuming entertainment content is valuable in direct proportion to its finitude and therefore may be better spent by side-stepping the advertisements for all those things we've never had any interest in buying in the first place.

Case in point: According to Nielsen's DVR-inclusive live-plus-seven-day data, the Big Four nets averaged a 1.8 rating among adults 18 to 49 during the 14 weeks of the broadcast season that coincided with the fourth quarter of 2017. And while those juiced deliveries were 14 percent below the year-ago period, the results in the official currency were even more anemic. Broadcast deliveries in those same weeks averaged a 1.5 rating in the C3 data, plummeting 21 percent from 2016.

While network sales bosses prudently leave the DVR-bloated data out of their upfront decks—there's no sense in antagonizing the assembled throngs of media buyers with fuzzy math and gratuitous stats-padding—broadcast PR reps looking to craft the most positive ratings narrative will almost exclusively traffic in the chimerical live-seven numbers. The data may be of interest to showrunners or syndicators, but for advertisers who traffic in commercial impressions, the inflated ratings are wholly irrelevant.

Pardon us while we flog this expired nag, but it's worth noting here that the live-same-day data that circulates the afternoon after a program's official air date is statistically consistent with the three-day commercial ratings that the networks try so hard to keep under wraps. Because so many people skip the ads in playback, the delayed viewing rarely helps recapture a significant number of lost ad impressions. Thus, the 1.5 demo rating that the Big Four nets averaged in C3 between Sept. 25 and Dec. 31 was only a trifling improvement on the unvarnished 1.4 rating they delivered in live-same-day over the same interval.

Any mention of the currency data is likely to be extended with a qualifier, especially if it's a certain Wednesday afternoon in May and you find yourself tucked into one of Carnegie Hall's 2,804 seats. CBS Corp. Chairman and CEO Les Moonves has been particularly vocal about his interest in expanding the currency beyond C3 and C7, telling the audience at last month's Morgan Stanley Technology, Media & Telecom Conference that the network's aim is "to get paid up to C35, which could be an extra 3 percent or something like that in terms of viewers." And while a 35-day window likely will be of greater interest to, say, a Frito-Lay or a Campbell's rather than a movie studio or retail outlet, Moonves would like to be paid for each and every eyeball that takes in his content.

"Once again, the world is changing drastically," Moonves said. "We need to get paid if they're watching." Moonves would go on to note that CBS's bid to write deals beyond the C7 window "may be slightly behind" his initial projections.

It's 10 p.m. … Do you know where your viewers are?

The last time a drama that aired in the 10 p.m. time slot was TV's top-rated show, Bill Clinton was nearing the end of his second term in the White House and Tom Brady's greatest athletic achievement to date was leading Michigan to a 35-34 win over Alabama in the 2000 Orange Bowl.

Even when "ER" was in its sixth season and a bit past its peak, the lodestone of NBC's "Must-See TV" block still averaged 24.9 million viewers, of whom a staggering 15 million were members of the 18-to-49 demo. To say that "ER" faced little in the way of competition is to traffic in understatement. On the broadcast front, ABC countered with the long-forgotten "20/20 Downtown" and "Wonderland," while CBS failed to make a dent in the Clooney/Margulies numbers with "48 Hours."

Tepid direct competition aside, "ER" was fortunate to draw breath in the days before cable TV and digital media made a hash of the entrenched broadcast model. During the 1999-2000 season in which "ER" was the most-watched, highest-rated show on the tube, there were 84.3 million cable and satellite-TV subscribers, representing 80 percent of all TV households. TiVo had crept its way into a mere 48,000 homes and generic DVR through your pay TV provider was still a good three years down the road. Only 5.2 million customers subscribed to a residential broadband service in 2000 (and even those lucky enough to have a 200 kps connection weren't streaming video), and Netflix was in the business of mailing hard copies of DVDs to your home via the U.S. Postal Service. If you didn't watch "ER," your entertainment options boiled down to popping a tape in the VCR or making shadow puppets on the wall.

Eighteen years after "ER" last topped the TV charts, the No. 1 draw in the 10 p.m. slot is ABC's freshman drama "The Good Doctor." The hospital setting shared by both is where any resemblance begins and ends; per Nielsen live-same-day data, "The Good Doctor" is currently averaging a 1.8 in the target demo, which works out to around 2.32 million adults 18 to 49, or 15 percent of the deliveries "ER" racked up in its sixth season.

Also worth noting: The key deliveries for "The Good Doctor" are twice that of what the 15 other broadcast shows that air at 10 p.m. are now averaging.

Whether they've fled to the more refined pleasures of cable TV or have reallocated the hour to catching up on the DVR cache or Netflix library, those who've fled from broadcast's 10 p.m. slot have driven up the price of reaching the diehards who've stuck to their programming guns. The cost of reaching 1,000 viewers with a 30-second spot in that sixth season of "ER" was around $40.86, or $58.39 in today's dollars—a steal in light of the fact that the Super Bowl LII CPM worked out to $109.48. Given an estimated unit cost of just under $117,000, the cost of reaching the same number of viewers via this season's biggest 10 p.m. flops ("Ten Days in the Valley") was roughly three-and-a-half times the adjusted "ER" rate. Even Jimmy Kimmel isn't likely to bring that up at Lincoln Center.

"I'm an old man! I hate everything but Matlock!"

If the broadcast networks were living, breathing human beings, they'd be closer to the tomb than the womb. Last season, the median age of the primetime CBS viewer was 61 years old, or a few candles north of the display that illuminates the birthday cake of the average NBC (57 years) or ABC (55) enthusiast. With a median age of 51 years, Fox is now eligible for AARP membership, and even the hip, teen-friendly CW is just a few years shy of aging out of the 18-to-49 demo.

Network execs tend to get mighty defensive about their Methuselean viewership, but there's no denying that traditional TV is now largely a destination for older Americans. And as much as the defection of younger people from the ranks may be seen as a function of external factors (cord cutting, unaudited digital consumption, etc.), much of the content that airs on broadcast TV isn't exactly designed to appeal to consumers on the more apple-cheeked end of the 18-to-34 spectrum.

Even teenagers who love "Family Guy" may not have much interest in Seth MacFarlane's live-action comedy "The Orville," because at least when you're watching an animated series, you don't have to look at the voice actor's old-ass face. (At 44 years of age—GROSS!—MacFarlane is far better suited for the attentions of a gerontologist than a Gen Z-er who thinks "Rick and Morty" hung the moon.)

But don't just take our word for it. Even a cursory glance at the audience for some of TV's most popular shows suggests that there's very little on broadcast that appeals to the teenagers who one day will occupy the sweet spot of 18-to-49.

Take, for example, "Young Sheldon," the first CBS comedy to really thrive in the "Big Bang Theory" lead-out slot. With an average draw of 12.6 million live-same-day viewers and a 3.4 rating in CBS's 25-to-54 demo, "Young Sheldon" is indisputably the season's biggest new hit and the heir apparent to its comedic precursor.

For all that, "Young Sheldon" is anything but. Season-to-date, the median age of the "Young Sheldon" viewer is 59 years old, or a good five years outside the upper limit of CBS's target demo. The show is averaging 842,000 adults 18-to-34, trailing only "Big Bang" and ABC's "Grey's Anatomy" in that range on Thursday nights, but that demo represents just 7 percent of the show's overall deliveries.

Of course, CBS isn't alone in drawing a more lived-in audience. The median age of NBC's "This Is Us," which now stands as the highest-rated drama on broadcast TV, is a not-so-sprightly 55.4 years, while the No. 2 drama, "Grey's Anatomy," is greyer still, attracting a fan base with a median age of 56 years. Meanwhile, in an unforeseen development, the gin rummy and gardening set have rather taken to the serialized charms of the CW's "Supergirl," which boasts a median age of 51.3 years. (The occasional seemingly off-target ad for Pepto-Bismol, the Swiffer and any number of cat food brands is the only hint that "Supergirl" has established such a devoted following among older viewers.)

What you will hear during Upfront Week

Unrestrained boasting (primarily from NBC, but don't count out Mr. Moonves). Sports talk, and lots of it. Chatter about how fewer avails will make your ad stand out—although no one is likely to mention the premium you'll pay for such serendipitous scarcity. Jimmy Kimmel regaling buyers and advertisers with the unvarnished truth about the TV market, only for the audience to forget everything he said when they sit down to negotiate. Junior account execs moaning about how it is either too hot or too cold in the tent at the Fox afterparty. (You can calculate the number of people who will complain about the conditions at Wollman Rink by multiplying the temperature in degrees Fahrenheit by their blood alcohol content.) And lastly, as the notion of the humblebrag is all but antithetical to the upfront experience—no one ever secured $2.6 billion in advance advertising commitments over the course of three weeks by indulging in even the most disingenuous form of humility—keep an ear cocked for the emergence of the microboast, a rhetorical flourish designed to lend cachet to a network's oldfangled brand. When you hear something along the lines of, "We're the top-rated network on Saturday nights from 8:10 p.m. to 8:20 p.m. among the highly sought-after Shut-Influencers demo!," take solace in knowing that it'll probably be another 52 weeks before you again hear anything quite so ridiculous.

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