It's Summertime, and for Broadcasters, the Livin' is Queasy

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Les Twins on NBC's freshman hit 'World of Dance,' a standout of the summer.
Les Twins on NBC's freshman hit 'World of Dance,' a standout of the summer. Credit: Justin Lubin/NBC

On the heels of a second quarter that saw broadcast primetime C3 deliveries plummet 15% from the period a year earlier, the ratings free fall accelerated further in July as the exodus of younger viewers from traditional TV carried on with what's become to seem a sort of grim inevitability.

According to Nielsen C3 data, broadcast ratings in July fell 17% from the analogous month in 2016, as deliveries of adults age 18-to-49 continued to be undermined by defections among viewers at the dewier margins of the demo. July PUT levels (industry argot for "Persons Using Television") were down 20% among the 18-to-24 set, and while that age range represents a fraction of the overall target demo, many execs fear that younger consumers who've hightailed it for the more immediate gratifications of digital media are unlikely to return to the cozy precincts of traditional TV.

All told, the Big Four networks in July averaged 3.83 million adults 18 to 49, which works out to a 3.0 rating in the C3 currency. That's down from the 4.63 million targeted viewers broadcasters served up in July 2016, which works out to a 3.6 C3 rating. (A rough weighted-average measurement of the commercial impressions notched within the first three days after a program's premiere, C3 has served as the official yardstick of the TV business for a decade.)

Why it matters
If expectations for summer TV turnout are much lower than during the 35-week September-to-May campaign, the warm-weather ratings declines could be a portent of rough seas in the fall. July is when broadcasters tend to start priming the pump for the upcoming season; if viewers aren't tuning in for live summer programming, odds are they won't see the new-series promos that are already in heavy rotation, such as those for CBS's "Young Sheldon," ABC's "The Good Doctor" or Fox's "The Orville." And given America's seemingly irreversible drift away from linear, fixed-schedule TV, the old-school networks can use every megapixel of pre-game hype they can muster.

While all four nets suffered double-digit percentage declines, the misfortune was not equally distributed. ABC last month took the biggest hit, dropping 24% to an average primetime draw of 895,000 adults 18 to 49, which translates to a 0.7 rating in C3. NBC, thanks to its "America's Got Talent" warhorse and the freshman hit "World of Dance," was the top-rated July broadcaster with an average draw of 1.21 million adults 18 to 49, or a 0.9 C3 rating. But that was down 20% from its year-ago 1.5 million.

CBS's July C3 ratings declined 12% to 873,000 adults 18 to 49, and while its average scores in its target demo (adults 25 to 54) were higher on an actual delivery basis, those declines were proportionate. Fox, last among broadcasters in July, fell 10% to 794,000 advertiser-coveted viewers, good for a 0.6 in C3.

As much as the year-over-year drops at ABC, CBS and Fox are expected to reverse course in August, those comps will be made against a period in which NBC dominated the TV landscape with 17 nights of Summer Olympics coverage from Rio de Janeiro. NBC, for its part, obviously will evidence steep declines in August, given the scope of the quadrennial event. The Rio Games averaged a 7.1 rating in the demo, or about eight times what NBC managed to eke out in the demo a month ago.

As much as there is plenty of blame to go around, the summer scripted shows' failure to find an audience has put the whammy on summer TV ratings. Newcomers particularly have been prone to failure; for example, ABC's supernatural thriller "Somewhere Between" is averaging a 0.4 rating through its first four episodes, while the ShondaLand drama "Still Star-Crossed" conked out with an average draw of a 0.3 among the 18-to-49 set. The CBS newbie "Salvation" is currently averaging a 0.8 in the network's key demo, which shakes out to around 921,000 adults 25-to-54, while NBC's "Midnight, Texas" is the summer's highest-rated freshman drama with an average turnout of just over 1 million viewers since its July 24 premiere.

Bucking the script
Returning scripted shows are also shedding viewers, as CBS's "Zoo" is currently averaging a 0.7 in adults 25 to 54, down 36% from its year-ago average, while ratings for NBC's veteran hospital drama "The Night Shift" are off 30% to a 0.7 in the 18-to-49 demo.

Unscripted competition series are holding up best, with NBC's "America's Got Talent" remaining TV's top summer show with an average draw of a 2.6 in the demo on Tuesday nights, or 3.34 million adults 18-to-49. The Dunkin' Donuts-sponsored "AGT" is currently bucking the seasonal ratings trend, improving 8% in the demo 8% versus its year-ago 2.4 rating. Also putting up strong numbers is CBS's indefatigable "Big Brother", which with an average delivery of a 2.1 in adults 25-54 is effectively flat compared to where it stood at this juncture in 2016.

NBC has also enjoyed a lift from its recently-renewed "World of Dance," which closed out its freshman run in the "AGT" lead-out slot with an average draw of 7.7 million viewers and a 1.8 in the target demo.

Among the rare broadcast shows that are currently averaging north of a 1.0 in the 18-to-49 demo are ABC's "The Bachelorette," which wrapped its 13th season with an average draw of a 1.6; NBC's "American Ninja Warrior" (1.4) and the fresh-off-the-shelf "SNL Weekend Update: Summer Edition" (1.2).

The lowest-rated summer network series include the aforementioned "Still Star-Crossed" and "Somewhere Between" on ABC and Fox's "American Grit" (0.4). Fox, which has devoted much of its summer airtime to repeats, is down 17% in the demo with its "MasterChef" tent pole (1.0) and flat with "So You Think You Can Dance" (0.8).

Cable losses were somewhat more subdued last month, with ad-supported nets slipping 8% in primetime C3 ratings -- a sequrntial improvement compared to the segment's 12% drop in the second quarter. In aggregate, the cable networks in July averaged 14.4 million members of the demo upon application of the C3 currency, which works out to an 11.2 rating.

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