Broadcast autopsy: 6 things we learned from digging in the guts of the 2018-19 TV season
With apologies to Jack Klugman
TV advertisers’ most insidious foes are DVRs and farmers.
The 2018-19 broadcast TV season (which officially wrapped up last Wednesday) died of natural causes, succumbing to the thousand natural shocks the primetime schedule is heir to after having served out its assigned 35-week lifespan. The brain has been weighed, the heart dissected, the guts prodded and palpated, and before the whole scrambled mess gets sent down to the furnace, all that remains is for the coroner’s report to leak.
While there’s no need to go all “Quincy, M.E.” on the most recent broadcast campaign—as much as neglect to some degree played a supporting role in the circumstances leading up to the death, we’re not trying to hang a murder rap on the Big Four—a number of revelations that were made in the course of the autopsy are worth examining in Klugmanesque detail. And in a nod to the jokey horsing-around that characterized the beginning and ending of every episode of NBC’s earth-toned, forensics-fueled drama, we’ll start with some good news.
1) The bulk of ad impressions are delivered to live audiences
As much as the nightly ratings continue to erode in the face of audience atomization and time-shifting, broadcast TV remains an extraordinarily efficient delivery system for advertising—provided that the content that surrounds the creative is consumed in real-time. According to MoffettNathanson analysis of the Nielsen data, 68 percent of the Big Four’s ad impressions were delivered live, thanks in large part to big-reach sporting events, news coverage and can’t-miss competition series such as Fox’s “The Masked Singer” and ABC’s “The Bachelor.”
By its very nature, sports is practically DVR-proof, which goes a long way toward eliminating the widespread commercial avoidance that plagues scripted broadcasts. As 94 percent of sports are watched live, ballgames, races and matches of all stripes remain the most effective way to reach an audience that won’t actively zip or zap through your 30-second spot; moreover, the popularity of football, basketball, baseball, et al helps boost the number of potential converts in the audience. In 2018, live sports accounted for 89 of the 100 most-watched broadcasts, with NFL games claiming 61 of those slots. Ten years ago, sports made up less than half (43) of the year’s top 100 broadcasts, and back in 1988, only 25 sporting events managed to make the cut.
During the season that just concluded, sports served up 42 percent of all C3 broadcast ratings among the 18-49 demo, up from 29 percent in 2014-15. Perhaps no network is better positioned to take advantage of these marketplace dynamics than Fox, which in 2018-19 delivered 72 percent of its C3 impressions via sports. Powered by its Sunday afternoon NFL slate, SEC football package and March Madness coverage, CBS last season derived 43 percent of its C3 ratings through sports, while 30 percent of NBC’s demo deliveries were secured by way of its NFL, NHL and Notre Dame football broadcasts. As the one broadcast network without an NFL broadcast slate, only 22 percent of ABC’s C3 numbers could be traced to sports.
On the other side of the currency divide, scripted comedy now stands as the most inefficient vehicle through which to reach primetime viewers. Half-hour chucklefests last season accounted for just 5 percent of the Big Four’s C3 deliveries, with NBC representing the low end of the comedy spectrum with a 2 percent share. Much of that has to do with relative scarcity—NBC last season aired just 50 hours of original comedy, well shy of the 114 hours served up by ABC—and rather underwhelming ratings. NBC’s seven sitcoms averaged a lamentable 0.6 live-same-day rating, delivering half the impressions CBS generated with its stable of eight scripted comedies.
2) Everything falls apart in the second half
Once the NFL hangs up its cleats for the season, all the air goes out of the primetime ratings football. For example, during the first half of the 2018-19 campaign, when NBC and Fox could count on their respective NFL packages to keep them flush, both networks averaged a 1.7 rating in primetime. When the NFL goes into hibernation, it takes the majority of those GRPs with it; in the absence of “Sunday Night Football,” NBC averaged a 0.8 in the 18-49 demo, while Fox skidded to a 0.7.
And while the NFL isn’t the only game in town, the other sports on the broadcast slate aren’t terribly efficient replacements. Regular-season Major League Baseball games and NHL broadcasts don’t exactly fill the void left behind by the NFL, and the NBA ratings really don’t start achieving scale until the Finals, which air well after the official broadcast season has run its course.
If the NFL’s annual Claude Rains act puts the bite on CBS, NBC and Fox, the nation’s agriculturalists conspire to really lower the boom in the spring. HUT levels, industry argot for “Homes Using Television,” can drop as much as 7 percent once Daylight Savings Time goes into effect, as Americans eschew the tube for the pleasures of warmer weather and an extra hour of sunlight. The 8 p.m. time slot is particularly vulnerable to the plunder of DST; in the first full week after Americans turned their clocks ahead on March 10, HUT levels in the hour plunged 18 percent.
Keeping the farmers happy has made broadcasters miserable; according to Nielsen, the C3 average for the 11 new series that aired the bulk of their episodes during Daylight Savings was a less-than-stellar 0.6. Rain on the scarecrow, blood on the plow.
3) The reboot frenzy has abated—for now, anyway
After years of reviving every mothballed scripted property from “Charlie’s Angels” to “Murphy Brown,” the networks have cooled their jets on the instant-nostalgia craze. While pilot season was abuzz with talk that the seminal cop shows “NYPD Blue” and “New York Undercover” would be resurrected for the fall, neither project was picked up. As such, this was the first upfront in recent memory in which none of the Big Four nets announced a splashy reboot, bringing a respite to an era that saw programmers try and breathe new life into the likes of “The Bionic Woman,” “Ironside,” “Minority Report” and “The Muppets.”
On the one hand, it’s easy to see why the networks went to the revival well as often as they did. Programming executives aren’t the world’s most profligate gamblers—more on that in a bit—and if something worked last season, you can be certain that you’ll see even more of it in the following season. So when “Roseanne” came back strong from its 20-year hiatus, it perhaps justified the move to rejuvenate the equally dormant “Murphy Brown.” Both shows were re-canceled, although the extracurricular events that led to ABC dismissing (and killing off) “Roseanne” led to a successful spinoff in “The Conners.”
Conventional wisdom says that a familiar cast of characters/IP functions much like a cherished brand, inasmuch as both tend to provide the consumer with a certain element of comfort. Dragging “Will & Grace” out of storage gave NBC an opportunity to ply its viewers with the comedic equivalent of chicken pot pie; that the ratings suggest more than a few consumers discovered mouse droppings in the gravy is why the old saw about familiarity and its relationship to contempt remains in use today.
Disconcerting entrée discoveries aside, the mania for reboots was also diminished somewhat by the lack of elbow room on the fall schedule. Having renewed 55 scripted legacy series, the Big Four nets found themselves with only a handful of vacancies waiting to be plugged up with new content.
If a reboot finds its way into the 2020-21 schedule and manages to pull “Roseanne” numbers, the Remember-When hype machine will be up and running again before you can say “The Six Million Dollar ALF.” As a former network exec once told us, if a certain genre or conceit finds an audience, it’s a programmer’s job to keep plugging away at the closest coordinates and hope to score another hit: “Running a network is essentially an incredibly expensive game of Battleship, only you can’t cheat as easily.”
4) Like death itself, Geico is inescapable
If it seems as if Geico ads are as ubiquitous as daytime courtroom shows and character actor Richard Kind—you can’t swing a dead cat on the Upper West Side without getting dander all over his corduroys—you’re not just imagining things. According to iSpot.tv estimates, Geico in 2018-19 was the biggest investor in ad-supported TV, plunking down some $914 million for inventory across the broadcast and cable networks. The insurance company racked up a staggering 45.7 billion ad impressions during the eight-month interval from Sept. 24 through May 22.
In broadcast prime alone, Geico ads aired 1,361 times, a saturation effort that gave rise to 4.1 billion impressions, of which 85 percent were delivered live. And while Geico isn’t averse to buying time in cable curiosities such as “My Big Fat American Gypsy Wedding,” “Zombie House Flipping” and, er, “The Toe Bro,” the brand’s interest in scale is evident in its most frequent targets. The NFL, NBA, NHL, MLB and college sports account for eight of Geico’s 10 biggest investments in 2018-19, and one-third of its overall TV spend.
Other brands that have pumped hundreds of millions of dollars into the TV marketplace include the insurance standouts Progressive and State Farm, as well as wireless giants Verizon, T-Mobile, AT&T and Sprint, fast-food heavy McDonald’s and automakers Chevrolet and Toyota. All told, the top 10 TV advertisers last season spent an estimated $4.67 billion on national inventory, of which $1.2 billion was earmarked for broadcast prime.
5) Happy 12th birthday to C3 ratings, which are more or less useless
The average live-plus-same-day rating for the 30 new scripted broadcast series that aired in 2018-19 was a 0.8, which works out to a little over 1 million adults 18-49. When viewers were given three days in which to catch up on their favorite shows, the average commercial rating was a hair over a 0.9. In other words, the networks, upon application of the C3 ratings, were credited with an additional 151,000 demographically desirable viewers. Better than a sharp stick in the eye, perhaps, but how is it possible that this is now the twelfth upfront in which C3 will serve as the currency? A compromise measure that wasn’t meant to serve as coin of the realm for more than a season or two is now just 48 months from being eligible to get its learner’s permit.
To make matters worse, the inexorable decline in broadcast C3 ratings shows no sign of slowing down. In just two years, the networks have seen 24 percent of their demo-targeted impressions disappear like the contents of a suburban grocery’s bread aisle during the year’s first snowstorm.
But as long as the principles of supply-and-demand continue to hold sway, TV will keep making a killing. By all accounts, demand for national ad inventory remains as healthy it’s been in years, which will only serve to further elevate the cost of a 30-second slice of airtime.
As has been the case since C3 was jammed down the marketplace’s throat on the eve of the 2007-08 bazaar, a few outliers have managed to beef up their ad impressions during the three-day playback window. Among the biggest gainers are NBC’s Monday night drama “Manifest,” which improved from a 1.3 in live-same to a 1.7 in C3, thereby recapturing some 535,000 otherwise lost demo impressions. Other new shows that were able to boost their deliveries were NBC’s “New Amsterdam” and ABC’s “A Million Little Things,” both of which served up around 387,000 additional ad impressions per episode via C3.
6) “Safe” is a four-letter word
One of the most shopworn clichés that gets bandied around during Upfronts Week is “big swings,” a catchall designed to hoodwink media buyers and advertisers into believing that broadcast television is a proving ground for innovative programming rather than a platform that traffics in cop shows and laugh tracks. The sheer volume of low-rated series that were deemed worthy of renewal this spring suggests network suits thumbing their noses at any hint of risk-taking; per Nielsen, the average C3 rating for the scripted freshman series that were picked up for a second season—thereby preventing the networks from trying something new in 2019-20—was a 1.2, good for 1.5 million adults 18-49, which marks a 40 percent decline compared to the 2.0 rating, or 2.48 million members of the demo, the average re-upped newbie delivered five years ago.
Because the industry is in a weird state of flux/existential torment, nothing on the programming front is proceeding as one might otherwise expect. ABC, which hasn’t won a seasonal ratings crown in 19 years and finished the 2018-19 campaign with a dolorous 0.9 in the demo, has ordered just three new scripted series for the fall. The stripped-down Fox, which vows to bear down even harder on live sports, doubled up on its scripted projects by locking in 10 new series. In a nod toward preserving the status quo, first-place NBC put in its standard series order, slating eight scripted shows for 2019-20. Oddly enough, the one thing that the Peacock shares with its old-school rivals is flux in the executive ranks; since last year’s upfronts, oversight of each of the three networks’ entertainment divisions has been passed on to a new boss (and in the case of NBC, the noun takes the plural form).
Perhaps the “big swings” will arrive next year, after the new and new-ish programming chiefs have spent a bit more time in the broadcast crucible. In the meantime, the network that understands its brand better than any other outlet on the dial while rejecting many of the faddish genre commitments that rarely seem to pan out—looking at you, sci-fi—arguably has made the upfront season’s biggest wagers care of a Control+Alt+Delete intervention on Thursday nights that will give rise to the fall’s riskiest, most intriguing new series in “The Unicorn” and “Evil.”
Yep, the unflappable, never-let-‘em-see-you-sweat CBS appears to have taken the biggest swings of any broadcaster. As William Goldman once observed, nobody knows anything. Even Jack Klugman had no idea what Quincy’s first name was.