May 21, 2014

NIELSENWAR: A Tale of Two Wins for NBC and ABC


Note:  all ratings below are Live + Same Day 18-49 numbers , the ratings which experience has shown to be closest to the averages for viewers who watch within 3 days and DO NOT skip through commercials, the “C3” rating which is the only measure that advertisers use in their transactions with the networks. The reason they’re lower than the ratings being reported elsewhere in Sweeps and seasonal summaries is because those use the networks’ preferred Live + 7 Day (L7) averages , counting viewers (including those who don’t watch the commercials) who simply don’t exist for revenue purposes.

Neither the 2013-14 television season nor the May sweeps end until tonight, but the winners are already clear.  However, the different ways those two wins were scored illustrate how tricky and misleading these “victories” can be.

ABC is going to win the May sweeps, and it’s done it the old-fashioned way, with strong performances from its core regular series like Dancing With the Stars, Grey’s Anatomy, Modern Family, Shark Tank and Once Upon A Time.  While Sunday’s Billboard Music Awards didn’t hurt. the network had to get there without the aid of its flagship drama Scandal, which wrapped its season in mid-April.  Through Sunday night, ABC’s sweeps average is 1.67, down just 5% from May 2013.  That compares with 1.52 for CBS (down 17%), 1.42 for NBC (down 16%) and 1.32 for FOX (down 24%).

ABC’s ratings have been consistent since last fall.  Its average rating for the season through March 2, just after February sweeps ended, was 1.65, almost identical to its May average, and its average for the entire season through last Sunday was 1.64.  So how can it be winning May sweeps, but in 4th place for the season overall?

As NBC is screaming to anyone with working ears, that network is going to win the season, with an average of just about 2.3–even though it’s in 3rd place for May.  The season as a whole showed a very impressive increase of 14% from last year.  Certainly the success of The Blacklist contributed to that.  (The Voice is NBC’s highest rated regular series, but it declined significantly from last season.)  Fundamentally, though, NBC’s “win” was fueled by the Winter Olympics and Sunday Night Football, two anomalies that are heavily watched but of little financial benefit to the network.

The Olympics cost NBC $775M for 17 days of programming (that amount included the rights to air events on additional Comcast NBC properties like NBC Sports Network and online, but the lion’s share of the viewership, and thus the license fee, was attributable to NBC).  The network paid over $1 billion for its rights to this year’s Sunday Night Football, and even apportioning an amount for the network’s once-every-three-years Super Bowl, that comes to something like $50M for every Sunday night game.  So, yes, NBC earns a Sunday night rating throughout the fall 3 or 4 times as high as the competition–but it spends 5 times as much (if not more) for the privilege, making sports not much more than a breakeven proposition for the network despite the gaudy ratings.

The importance of its sports programming is clear when NBC’s numbers are parsed a bit.  Its season average through March 2, which included the entire season of Sunday Night Football and the Winter Olympics, was a tremendous 2.69.  That fell to 2.3 when sports-less March, April and May were factored in.  And without sports, the NBC average became May’s 1.42, down 40% from its full-season average.

FOX was in roughly the same situation as NBC, because it aired this year’s Super Bowl:  its season average through March 2 was 2.37, but that became 2.03 for the season as a whole, and the awful 1.32 for May mentioned above.  CBS was down a steep 23% from last year, with a full-season average of 1.54, and that was partly because it had the 2013 Super Bowl, but its aging regular series are also falling, as the 17% May-to-May drop makes clear.  Since it had no special sports programming this season, however, it was fairly consistent, with a 1.93 average through March 2 and a 1.86 average for the full season.

What is all means is that despite the bragging that will be heard over the next few days, the networks are closer than NBC would like to admit, and NBC’s programmers are hardly the geniuses they’re being praised for suddenly becoming.  ABC doesn’t engage in the NFL business because its sports (aside from some Saturday night college football and the upcoming NBA Finals) are aired on sister network ESPN, and given the swollen state of football and Olympics license fees, ABC’s numbers provide a purer picture of the state of network television when it’s in a profit-making mode.  NBC paid through the nose for its “victory,” and that will keep its averages buoyant next year as well, when it airs the 2015 Super Bowl.  Unless it can find some more Blacklist-level wins, however, 2016, with its Summer Olympics airing in the off-season, may be ugly–and if/when that ratings drop comes, its executives won’t suddenly have become idiots.


About the Author

Mitch Salem
MITCH SALEM has worked on the business side of the entertainment industry for 20 years, as a senior business affairs executive and attorney for such companies as NBC, ABC, USA, Syfy, Bravo, and BermanBraun Productions, and before that, at the NY law firm of Weil, Gotshal & Manges. During all that, he has more or less constantly been going to the movies and watching TV, and writing about both since the 1980s. His film reviews also currently appear on and In addition, he is co-writer of an episode of the television series "Felicity."