April 24, 2012

The Sked: Spring Broadcast Ratings–Yes, There Is a Problem

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Written by: Mitch Salem
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>The New York Times recently ran a story about slumping ratings for the broadcast networks, drawing an immediate response by Bill Gorman of

“You can always count on Bill Carter of the New York Times to be surprised by numbers that aren’t a surprise to anyone who’s been paying attention to them.  Yesterday’s article is no different.  In it he’s surprised by ratings declines in the Spring!…NYT Newsflash!  Modern Family hits adults 18-49 season low in week 31!  Alert for those paying attention! Modern Family hit a season low in week 31 last season as well!  And this season’s low (4.1 rating) was higher than last season’s low (3.8), but that doesn’t fit the nonsense narrative that Carter’s pitching (“mysterious” decline in broadcast viewership, unfounded speculation as to why) so it’s conveniently omitted!”

While it is true that Carter might be late to this story and it is also true that spring ratings tend to be lower than fall ratings, we should not focus on one show that happens to have a higher spring low than it did last year.  If there is something going on with broadcast network viewing, we need to look at the entire schedule for all networks, adjust for the time of the year, and compare each yearpart to last season’s comparable time frame.  The table below does just that, and the results are not encouraging for broadcasters.

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

                           This    Last   Pct
                          Season  Season Change
Sep 19-Dec 4 (11 weeks)   10.40   10.36   -0%
Dec 5-Feb 12 (10 weeks)    9.58   10.08   -5%
Feb 13-Apr 22 (10 weeks)   8.37    9.17   -9%

As we have noted before, this season started off in a very promising fashion with a solid assist from live sporting events (NBC’s Sunday Night Football up year to year many weeks, good World Series ratings, and some spectacular college football games on Saturday nights.)  The four broadcast networks added up to a 10.4 rating with Adults 18-49 for the first 11 weeks of the season, matching the prior season’s rating for the same 11-week period.  A flat year is virtually unheard of and would have been worthy of a “breaking news” graphic on any cable news network.

Of course, the early numbers were too good to be true, and as we moved to the December-February period the combined broadcast network rating fell 5% behind the prior season (a much more normal pace).  Like a red-hot hitter running into a bit of a slump, the ratings seemed to be “regressing to the mean”.

But then starting in mid-February, the year to year declines really started to increase.  For the ten weeks between February 13 and April 22, the combined ratings for the broadcast networks were down fully 9% over the same period last year.  And in four of the those ten weeks, the weekly declines were in double digits: the week of March 19-25 was down 17% from the same week last year, March 26-April 1 was down 14%, and the weeks of February 20-26 and April 2-8 were down 10%.

More recently, the declines have been less severe.  The just-completed week of April 16-22 was is down 7% (pending adjustments to Saturday and Sunday in the official nationals tomorrow) and April 9-15 was down a mere 4%.  It might be tempting to look at the past few weeks and conclude the slump is over or at least easing.  But the real lesson is don’t cherry pick data.  It would be just as wrong to focus on a week or two (which can be heavily influenced by an unusual original/repeat episode mix) as it is to focus on one program.  Looking at the numbers with a broad view (aggregating many weeks together), it is undeniable that the year to year declines are accelerating and not just following an underlying seasonal pattern that has existed since the beginning of the medium.

It is always tempting to point to underlying industry pressures as the culprit (more DVRs, more aggressive and higher quality cable programming, Nielsen measurement flaws).  But sometimes it is just that the programs themselves suck.  As American Idol collapses, some viewers have landed on The Voice (although even that once hot show has cooled considerably), but most of the rest have simply turned away from the broadcast networks.  Who can blame them?  The new midseason shows have been very unappealing.  But just like we saw after last year’s box office slump, better content can bring audiences back.  Are this year’s pilots going to get the job done?  We will have our first indications when the upfront trailers and the pilots themselves begin to circulate in just a few weeks.  Stay tuned for complete upfront analysis and our exclusive ratings forecasts for each night and each network coming soon.

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."