Broadcasters Hit New Lows as Clock Winds Down on 2016-17 Season

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'This Is Us' is one of the few bright spots in the broadcast lineup.
'This Is Us' is one of the few bright spots in the broadcast lineup.  Credit: Ron Batzdorff/NBC

The destabilization of the live TV model continues to gnaw away at the primetime broadcast ratings like a school of piranha stripping the flesh off the bones of a luckless cow. As younger viewers churn away from the tube and programming options proliferate on alternative platforms, nightly deliveries effectively have gone from moo to goo, and all the time-shifting in the world isn't ever going to put Bessie back together again.

While it's axiomatic that one of the Big Four networks must win the seasonal ratings race, it seems somewhat disingenuous to celebrate the survivor of what's basically an ongoing war of attrition. Not only will this be the fifth straight year in which ABC, CBS, NBC and Fox will fail to finish with an average of a 3.0 rating or better in the adults 18-49 demo, but there is a very real chance that all four will slip below a 2.0. So it goes.

Of course, the season hasn't been a total loss -- NBC finds itself with a rare new hit on its hands in "This Is Us," and each network can lay claim to at least a few high-impact legacy series -- but the Holstein is tottering dangerously close to the muddy banks of the river. The following areas are where the footing is especially precarious.

Top 25 Primetime Broadcast TV Programs (Through Week 23 of the 2016-17 Season)
P2+ (millions) A18-49 year-ago avg year-over-year % chg
1 Sunday Night Football (NBC) 20.4 7.0 7.9 -11%
Thursday Night Football (NBC)* 13.4 3.8 1.3 +192%
3 Thursday Night Football (CBS)* 11.5 3.6/4.2 4.6/5.2 -22%/-19%
4 The Big Bang Theory (CBS) 14.6 3.3/4.7 3.9/5.5 -15%/-15%
5 Empire (Fox) 8.67 3.2 4.8 -33%
This Is Us (NBC) 9.57 2.6 2.2 +18%
7 The Voice (NBC) 10.7 2.5 3.0 -17%
8 Modern Family (ABC) 7.27 2.3 2.7 -15%
9 The Bachelor (ABC) 7.27 2.3 2.3 flat
10 Grey's Anatomy (ABC) 8.16 2.1 2.3 -9%
11 The Simpsons (Fox) 4.84 2.1 2.1 flat
12 60 Minutes (CBS) 12.7 1.9/2.7 2.2/3.1 -14%/-13%
13 Survivor (CBS) 8.58 1.9/2.6 2.1/3.0 -10%/-13%
14 NCIS (CBS) 15.1 1.8/2.8 2.3/3.4 -22%/-18%
Kevin Can Wait (CBS) 8.14 1.8/2.6 1.9/2.6 -5%/flat
16 The Goldbergs (ABC) 6.36 1.8 2.1 -14%
17 Dancing with the Stars (ABC) 11.0 1.7 1.8 -6%
18 Scandal (ABC) 6.61 1.7 1.9 -11%
Speechless (ABC) 5.73 1.7 2.1 -19%
The Great Indoors (CBS) 7.60 1.6/2.3 2.2/2.9 -27%/-21%
21 Chicago Fire (NBC) 7.19 1.6 1.8 -11%
Lethal Weapon (Fox) 6.61 1.6 1.6 flat
23 The Middle (ABC) 6.38 1.6 1.7 -6%
The Wall (NBC) 6.36 1.6 1.1 +45%
25 Black-ish (ABC) 5.41 1.6 1.9 -16%
Source: Nielsen live-plus-same-day data, Sept. 19, 2016-Feb. 26, 2017
(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

NBC (2.3 A18-49)

Two-thirds of the way through the season, NBC looks like a lock to maintain the slim lead it holds over Fox, which is itself competitive thanks to its stewardship of Super Bowl LI and the 2016 World Series. Trouble is, while "Sunday Night Football" always drives NBC out ahead of the pack, the network loses all momentum once the NFL goes on hiatus. With TV's last great reach vehicle in play, NBC averaged a 2.7 in the adults 18-49 demo, but in the subsequent six weeks without football on its schedule, the network has eked out a mere 1.0 rating in prime.

While the return of "The Voice" should help bolster NBC's performance on Mondays and Tuesdays -- Cycle 11 of the popular competition series averaged 10.8 million live-plus-same-day viewers and a 2.5 in the 18-49 demo, making it broadcast's fourth highest-rated non-NFL program -- the rest of the week is a work in progress. With an average live-same-day rating of a 1.3 in the 18-49 demo, Wednesday night's procedural lineup is down 13% compared to this time a year ago, and Thursday's scripted roster remains a puzzle, delivering a 1.1 since the season began, flat versus the analogous period in 2015-16. Lastly, with an average draw of a 0.8 in the target demo, Friday's grab bag of surveillance-cam hijinks, supernatural dramas and "Dateline" lags well behind CBS's cop shows and ABC's mashup of multicams, "Shark Tank" and "20/20."

2016-17 Season, Through Week 23
Network A18-49 Rating % Change
NBC 2.3 -4%
Fox 2.2 +5%
CBS 1.9 -24%
ABC 1.7 -11%
CW 0.6 -25%
Source: Nielsen

"The Voice" aside, what remains on NBC's primetime slate are a slew of Dick Wolf properties, including the veteran workhorse "Law & Order: SVU" and no fewer than four Windy City intrigues; a sprinkling of underwhelming comedies; two fading roses in "Blindspot" and "The Blacklist" and last year's surprise hit, the tyro talent show "Little Big Shots." The Peacock also is about to lose its top scripted draw. With an average C3 score of a 3.1 in NBC's target demo, the freshman sensation "This Is Us" is the only new show that justifiably may be classified as a breakout hit; unfortunately, it wraps its first season on March 14.

While the Monday 10 p.m. slot behind "The Voice" offers the biggest lead-in on NBC prime, the hour is no longer bulletproof. Newcomer "Timeless," which squandered nearly half (46%) of the demo furnished by its predecessor, would appear to be a long shot for a return engagement next fall, and in bowing last week to a 1.6 in the demo, "Taken" now holds the dubious distinction of putting up the weakest premiere numbers out of "The Voice." Then again, given the the average rating for all 10 p.m. scripted series is now a meager 1.0, down 23% from the year-ago 1.3, the deliveries for the first episode of "Taken" are still more than respectable. (That it's now nearly impossible to define abject failure probably tells you everything you need to know about the whiplash deceleration of live TV viewing.)

Fox (2.2 A18-49)

Fox's last two breakout hits ("Empire" and "Gotham") were green-lit by former entertainment chairman Kevin Reilly, so the network is understandably eager to tout its more recent development. The standout this season is "Lethal Weapon," which when it closes shop on March 15 will stand as one of just three Fox series to deliver north of a 2.0 rating in the C7 currency. (The others are "Empire" and "The Simpsons.")

Unfortunately, the rest of the Fox schedule is riddled with more holes than Sonny Corleone at the Wantagh Parkway toll plaza. "American Idol" has vanished (along with all of its GRPs) and "Empire" ratings are off by nearly a third compared to last season. "Gotham" is down nearly 20%, "Lucifer" has seen a quarter of its demo deliveries go up in smoke, and the live-action comedies are all hovering around the 1.0 mark -- which, as it happens, appears to be Fox's new Mendoza Line.

Pull sports out of the mix and Fox's ratings struggles become even more self-evident. According to Nielsen, the network's entertainment programming is now averaging a 1.5 rating among adults 18-49, putting it dead last behind NBC (1.9), ABC (1.8) and CBS (1.7). Compare those results to the standard, full-bore sports/news/entertainment averages -- through Week 23, NBC leads the pack with a 2.3 in the demo, followed by Fox (2.2), CBS (1.9) and ABC (1.7) -- and suddenly the idea that one network enjoys a sort of hegemonic dominance over the others is shot all to hell.

"Empire" returns on March 22, and even though it's no longer the phenomenon it was during its inaugural run, the show is still a must-buy for marketers looking to get their advertising out in front of a whole bunch of consumers. Not only is it the top-rated broadcast drama, but it also enjoys the biggest lift from live-same-day to C3/C7 on the tube. Whereas the average bump from live-same to the currency is just two-tenths of a ratings point, "Empire" gains a full point or better upon conversion to the transactional data. (Even "The Walking Dead" can't make that claim. In the first half of its current season, TV's top scripted draw averaged a staggering 5.4 in C3 … which represented a bit of a dip compared with the 5.7 it scared up in live-same-day.)

For the most part, Fox's seasonal misfires haven't put it in makegoods hell, as the network's ad sales team rolled back pricing on a good deal of its returning series during the upfront bazaar. But buyers said that Fox last summer gravely overestimated the potential of its new musical drama "Star," calling for an average unit cost of around $265,000 for a 30-second spot in the show. With just two episodes left in its first-season run (Fox renewed the show on Feb. 22), "Star" is averaging a 1.3 rating in live-same-day, which translates to around 1.67 million members of the 18-49 set. Try inputting those numbers into any online CPM calculator; the results will make you think you're hallucinating.

CBS (1.9 A18-49, 2.7 A25-54)

If its fall launches for the most part were steady but unspectacular, the midseason shows have been unmitigated disasters, as "Training Day" and the now-canceled "Doubt" are responsible for CBS's worst in-season premiere numbers in its history. (And that's when you don't count the multinational co-production, "Ransom," which airs on Saturday night, when television usage is at its low ebb.)

All three newbies bowed to fractional ratings in the 18-49 demo and fared little better among CBS's target audience. Before it was unceremoniously yanked from the schedule on Feb. 24, "Doubt" limped out of the gate to a 1.1 rating, which works out to 1.32 million adults 25-54, while "Ransom" opened up with a 1.2 (1.44 million) and "Training Day" did a 1.3 (1.56 million). To say that these numbers are unheard of at CBS is to traffic in understatement, but they also would seem to imply that the most-watched network isn't immune to the depredations that have beset its rivals in recent years.

After having managed for years to elude the derelict time slots that blight the other broadcasters' schedules, CBS now finds itself uncharacteristically vulnerable in a handful of key hours. Wednesday nights at 10 p.m. have become a virtual dumping ground for underperforming genre exercises such as "Code Black," "Doubt" and "Criminal Minds: Beyond Borders," while Thursdays at 10 p.m. are burdened by low-impact movie adaptations like "Rush Hour" and "Training Day." The last two hours of its Sunday night lineup are also less than outstanding; per Nielsen, 78% of the audience for the older-skewing "Madam Secretary" and "Elementary" lies beyond the bounds of CBS's target demo, making those viewers all but invisible to advertisers.

If CBS suddenly finds itself staring down the same 10 p.m. demons that have long given ABC and NBC fits, its "Big Bang Theory" conundrum is unique. It's been seven years since CBS last launched a new comedy out of "Big Bang" that managed to hang on to much more than one-half of its lead-in; this season, "The Great Outdoors" has squandered 51% of the 8 p.m. demo, while last year's "Life in Pieces" held on to 55% of the furnished target audience. You'd have to go back to the short-lived 2010 curiosity "$#*! My Dad Says" to find a new comedy that really held up its end of the bargain in the post-"Big Bang" slot; the William Shatner vehicle retained 72% of its live-same-day lead-in.

At this point it's worth noting that CBS's rush to tout the Nielsen Total Content Rating data that says its primetime entertainment ratings in Weeks 1-13 grew 54% versus their original live-same-day numbers doesn't include a whiff of information about any concomitant growth in its commercial deliveries over the same period. In other words, the first batch of TCR data -- which is effectively just a dump of live-plus-35-day viewership via linear TV, DVR and VOD (online and mobile numbers are not included) -- isn't terribly relevant to advertisers as it doesn't include the C3/C7 deliveries against which TV is actually transacted. As we've demonstrated so many times before, people who time-shift are highly resistant to watching the captured advertising.

As live viewing continues to wither, you're going to see even more of this sort of frenzied spin from the networks. And while the delayed-viewership data doesn't necessarily fall under the Trumpian rubric of "Fake News," as long as the networks continue to try to obscure the currency results in favor of a set of numbers that don't have any real bearing on the advertising market, it's perhaps best to take these breathless announcements with a Lot's Wife-sized pillar of salt.

ABC (1.7)

Two D.O.A. new dramas in "Notorious" and "Conviction" and dizzying declines for "Quantico" and "How to Get Away with Murder" have conspired to keep an already vulnerable ABC in the ratings cellar. For all that, ABC can lay claim to nine of the top 25 broadcast shows; as noted above, remove sports from the equation and only one-tenth of a ratings point separates it from first place.

That ABC's entertainment programming is as competitive as it is speaks to its strong comedy roster; its string of indefatigable veterans such as "Grey's Anatomy," "The Bachelor" and "Modern Family;" and its outsized popularity among women. But the network's trouble spots are so haunted by failure that they're like that one restaurant in the strip mall that turns over every six months or so. (Among the recent flops on the doomed Orange Julius-to-Sbarro-to-Boston Market axis include the Tuesday 10 p.m. dramas "Lucky 7," "Killer Women" and "Wicked City.") As it happens, that particular hour hasn't featured a viable hit since "NYPD Blue" went off the air in March 2005, and bumping a no-longer-viable "Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D." into the slot was the scheduling equivalent of a shruggie emoji.

Meanwhile, with an average rating of a 0.9 among the adults 18-49 crowd, ABC's Sunday night lineup is crying out for an all-game-show/family-friendly format. New time-travel drama "Time After Time" bowed last night to a woeful 0.6 in the fast affiliate ratings (making it the season's eighth new series to debut to fractional ratings), and the return of the low-rated anthology strip "American Crime" isn't going to do much to buttress ABC's deliveries. "Crime," which last winter averaged a 0.9 rating in live-same-day, will lead out of the already compromised "Time After Time," which itself is unlikely to get much support from a creaky "Once Upon a Time" (1.0). Look for ABC entertainment president Channing Dungey to bring a wrecking ball to Sunday nights during her May upfront presentation.

Again, as the entertainment-only ratings amply demonstrate, all four networks are essentially in the same boat. As of this moment, 43 primetime series are averaging less than a 1.0 in the demo; last year at this time, there were 27 fractional shows. All told, the average rating for the 79 scripted series on the Big Four broadcast nets is now a 1.3, down 13% from the year-ago 1.5. The bottom is falling out, and unless broadcasters' big swings connect with advertisers (see: NBC's bid to sell $1 billion in inventory off the Nielsen grid), the future of sports-free ad-supported TV looks mighty grim indeed.

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