November 4, 2013

NIELSENWAR: The Shrinking Landscape of Network Television


The networks have announced most of their midseason plans by now, issuing back orders or canceling the series introduced to great fanfare just 6 weeks ago and shuffling some time slots, and one thing has becoming increasingly clear–and just plain increasing:  more and more, the networks are content with ratings under a 2.0 in Adults 18-49.  It wasn’t so long ago that a rating that began with a “1” meant an instant death sentence, but back orders for shows like Brooklyn Nine-Nine, Mom and Trophy Wife and the continued airing of Hostages and Betrayal demonstrate that this is no longer the case.  A slippery slope has come into play, as first lower numbers were acceptable on Fridays, then at 10PM during the rest of the week, and now it’s crept throughout the schedule, so that even at last bastion of the old oligarchy CBS, we’re approaching line-ups in which a rating over 2.0 is the exception rather than the rule.

Keeping in mind that the networks all hope their new midseason shows will be smash hits, and assuming current ratings for holdover shows stay more or less stable–and barring a phenomenon like last year’s Scandal, ratings tend to get lower, rather than higher, as a season goes on–here’s a network by network look at the hours likely to rate under a 2 (omitting Saturdays, which are barely programmed by the networks and always below 2 except for occasional sports events):

ABC: 9 hours of ratings routinely under 2.0 of 19 primetime hours per week

Sunday 7-8PM & 9-11PM

Tuesday 9-11PM

Wednesday 10-11PM

Thursday 8-9PM

Friday 8-9PM & 10-11PM  (Shark Tank is usually at or just below a 2, which would add another hour)

NBC:  at least 11 hours of 19 (possibly 15 in the Spring)

Tuesday 8-9PM & 10-11PM

Wednesday 8-11PM

Thursday 8-11PM

Friday 8-11PM

(Note:  NBC’s post football Sunday has yet to debut, but last Spring it was consistently below a 2.0 from 7-11PM)

CBS:  8 hours of 19

Sunday 9-11PM

Monday 10-11PM

Wednesday 10-11PM

Thursday 10-11PM

Friday 8-11PM

FOX:  4 hours of 13

Tuesday 8-10PM

Friday 8-10PM

(Note:  The X Factor has been hovering just around a 2.0 this season, which would add 3 hours to this list, although FOX prays American Idol will do considerably better in the Spring.)

It’s worth noting in this context that during last week’s Sunday-Thursday primetime, at least 4 cable networks each night aired shows with ratings that were at 1.0 or higher, meaning that even beyond blockbuster hits like The Walking Dead or Sons of Anarchy, the cable universe is getting ever-closer to that of the broadcast networks.

In response to all this, the networks would no doubt cite viewers’ increasing practice of watching shows on a delayed basis, inflating the numbers if shows are measured for the 3 or 7 days after initial airing.  But as we noted recently, networks aren’t in the business of selling delayed eyeballs–audiences that don’t watch an entire show including commercials during the 3 days after air have zero economic value to the networks, and history strongly suggests that the “C3” rating is within 10% of a given show’s overnight number.  In other words, these sub-2 numbers are the ones that count.  (The single most idiotic press release of the season, by the way, came from CBS, which last week issued 30-day delayed viewing numbers under which the disastrous Hostages was transformed into a “hit.”  We look forward to the CBS announcement in May 2014 that if all viewing from its initial airing in September is counted, the Hostages pilot will have outrated the series finale of MASH.)

Advertisers are presumably accepting lower ratings guarantees for network programming than ever before, or else the networks would be airing so many “make-good” ads that they wouldn’t be able to sell anything else.  But still, the CPMs–the rates per viewer that advertisers pay the networks–increase by just single-digit percentages each season, and the number of low-rated shows (or what used to be considered low-rated) is constantly rising.  No one is saying that the networks are going anywhere anytime soon.  But the traditional economic model of their business is broken, and the shards are only getting smaller.


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."