March 7, 2012

The Sked: Declining Network Ratings — How Bad Are They?

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Written by: Mitch Metcalf
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>For the past several weeks, “season low” and “down sharply from last year” have been repeated phrases in our daily ratings posts, mostly for broadcast network programs but also for cable programs, as well.  What’s going on here?  After all, this season started in a very promising fashion with the combined audience for the four major broadcast networks even with the prior season, an almost impossible feat given the the ever increasing media fragmentation in today’s world. 

To take a broad view, we looked at the season in three distinct parts, summarized in the table below.  In the first part of the television season (the first 11 weeks from September 19-December 4), ABC, CBS, NBC and FOX combined for a 10.4 Adult 18-49 rating in prime time, exactly the same rating as the comparable period in 2010.  Then from December through most of January, the broadcast networks were pacing 4% behind the 2010-11 season, a decline more in line with past decade or so.  Nothing to worry about, most thought.  But then in late January up until now, the decline in network TV viewing has really picked up steam, pushing a double-digit rate.

            4-Network (ABC CBS NBC FOX) 
      Prime Time Adult 18-49 Combined Rating

                      2011-12  2010-11  % chg
     Sep 19-Dec  4     10.4     10.4      0%
     Dec  5-Jan 22      9.0      9.4     -4%
     Jan 23-Mar  4     10.2     11.1     -9%

To get an idea of the pace of change, the chart below shows the yearly decline in network television viewing for each week of the season to date.  In the first part of the season, there were a few up weeks and a few down weeks but the magnitude of the differences generally were quite small (mostly under 5%).  More recently, however, the weekly swings have become much more pronounced: more in the 10% or even 15%+ range and predominantly on the negative side.

Singing Competition: The Changing of the Guard.  Clearly, much of the accelerating decline in the past few months is related to the collapse of FOX’s American Idol and the ascendance of NBC’s The Voice.  The biggest nightly declines for network TV since late January have come on Idol‘s nights (Tuesday and Wednesday) and the only significant up night is Monday, home of The Voice.  Many viewers who used to watch three to four hours per week of American Idol now can get their singing fix with two hours of The Voice, and the rest of the time spent formerly watching Idol apparently as not been shifted to other network programs.  For from it.  As we have seen recently, many marquee programs like Modern Family, Glee and The Office have suffered serious audience erosion over the course of the season and are stuck at season lows, far behind last season’s pace.

            Nightly Trend (This Year vs Last Year)
                  4-Network (ABC CBS NBC FOX) 
            % Change Adult 18-49 Prime Time Rating

                   MON  TUE  WED  THU  FRI  SAT  SUN  Week

  Sep 19-Dec  4    -2%   0%  +9%  +2% +19%  +8%  -5%    0%
  Dec  5-Jan 22    +3% -16%  +1%  +2%  -5% -11%  -1%   -4%
  Jan 23-Mar  4   +12%  -8% -19% -19%   0% -17%  -1%   -9%

Are viewers abandoning television? We know that time spent watching live television remains remarkably consistent over the years, based on Nielsen analysis.  In fact, as DVR usage has risen, the total amount of time spent in front of a television has actually increased in the past five years.  Young adults (18-34) now spend almost 33 hours per week in front of the TV, up slightly from five years ago.  Although these young adults watch an hour less of live TV per week since 2007, DVR playback has increased well over an hour.  (Viewing video online was not a part of this particular study, but separate Nielsen studies have shown time spent streaming is similar to the DVR playback levels and tends to be additive rather cannibalistic for TV viewing.)  Middle-aged adults (35-54) watch over 37 hours per week, with about half an hour less live TV but almost two hours more DVR playback per week.  And older adults (55+) now watch over 46 hours per week, with an hour more live TV and over an hour and half more DVR playback.  

The DVR (and videogames for young adults) have only increased America’s love affair with television.  And the vast majority of time spent with television is still devoted to watching TV live — even with younger viewers.  We have not seen an update of this study into 2012, but given the long-term trends it is hard to imagine a sudden abandonment of the medium anywhere near the recent declines in broadcast prime time viewing. 

            Time Spent with Television per Week

                 Total Day (hours:minutes)

          Adults 18-34     Adults 35-54      Adults 55+
          2007    2011     2007    2011     2007    2011
Total TV  32:39  32:52     36:19  37:19     43:57  46:19
Live TV   27:02  26:00     32:32  32:08     41:50  42:53
DVR        1:34   2:46      1:36   3:22      0:50   2:30
Videogame  1:22   2:30      0:17   0:38      —-   —-

note: DVD and VHS playback not shown.

So the remarkable long-term durability of the television medium really puts the recent declines in broadcast network viewing in perspective.  If the 9% broadcast decline since late January turns into the more recent 10-15% declines, an already stressed business model starts to become extremely frayed.  And, oh yeah.  Daylight Saving Time hits Sunday, as the longer days add yet another strong headwind for network ratings, particularly in the 8:00 pm hour of prime time.  The season could get even bumpier for the broadcasters quite soon.    


About the Author

Mitch Metcalf
MITCH METCALF has been tracking every US film release of over 500 screens (over 2300 movies and counting) since the storied weekend of May 20, 1994, when Maverick and Beverly Hills Cop 3 inspired countless aficionados to devote their lives to the art of cinema. Prior to that, he studied Politics and Economics at Princeton in order to prepare for his dream of working in television. He has been Head of West Coast Research at ABC, then moved to NBC in 2000 and became Head of Scheduling for 11 years.