I love television ratings. I love what they tell us about individual shows, the networks, and the industry in general. My intention with this weekly article is to take a look at the week in ratings and prognosticate about their future and the health of each network. Ratings presented here are the Adults 18-49 rating, which represents the percentage of adults between 18 and 49 watching a particular program.
Television syndication is incredibly boring to talk about in any kind of long-form discussion, but it’s very important for the futures of a handful of shows airing right now, so I’m going to try to summarize it as quickly and as painlessly as I possibly can. You see, the most lucrative aspect of television production is syndication, wherein a production company sells its shows to cable networks or broadcast affiliates to run in repeats. Do you watch The Big Bang Theory repeats on TBS, Family Guy repeats on Cartoon Network, or NCIS repeats on USA? That’s syndication. It’s an incredibly lucrative business (upwards of $2-3 million per episode nowadays), especially when a show has enough episodes to be “stripped,” essentially running episodes in the same timeslot every day. The old threshold for stripped syndication was 100 episodes but today it’s typically 88 episodes, meaning that a series that runs four full seasons (at 22 episodes per season) will have enough episodes for syndication.
Where things get really interesting is when a show is earning cancelation-worthy ratings at the end of its third season. The network that airs the series may want to cancel it, but the production company that makes the show has a huge incentive (tens or hundreds of millions of dollars’ worth of incentives) to make 22 more episodes. In these cases, the production company will often give the network a steep discount on the license fee for the show in order to get those extra episodes made. The most famous example of this is probably ‘Til Death, which was canceled less than a month into its third season, but surprisingly renewed when Sony (the production company) made Fox an offer it couldn’t refuse. In fact, this syndication-driven television economy has become so common that it’s virtually unheard of to see the cancelation of a series that is within one full season of syndication.
The corollary to this development is that networks now face a much more difficult choice when it comes to their sophomore series, for renewing a show in its second full season is essentially giving it a two season pickup akin to the academic decision of tenure, wherein universities must decide whether to give a professor a lifetime job, or terminate them. Which brings us to the “Tenure Twos,” what I call the shows in their second seasons that are pulling borderline ratings that, while not necessarily worthy of cancelation by themselves, will make a network think twice about renewal when it’s extremely likely to be a two-season deal. Each network has a sophomore series sitting near (but not at) the bottom of its ratings that will force a tough decision come May.
|The cast of "The Mindy Project," though it'll probably change tomorrow|
The Mindy Project is Fox’s Tenure Two show this year. Mindy struggled a bit last spring, but still managed to snag a renewal. This year, however, it debuted weak and just went down from there, the past two weeks earning ratings below even the critically-reviled Dads, which just this afternoon received an unexpected full-season pickup, indicating that Fox really enjoys being in the Seth MacFarlane business.
The magic number for scripted series renewal is usually 80%. That is, a show (unless it airs on Fridays) typically needs to draw 80% of the network average ratings in order to be renewed. This is because networks never cancel half of their shows, so even being a little below average is okay. The Mindy Project so far this year is drawing 69.8% of the network average. Exacerbating the problem is that, while Fox’s comedies have been struggling, its dramas (or rather its hour-long shows, including Glee) have been doing pretty well, meaning that Mindy is now the lowest rated show on the network. Now, I’ll usually predict a low-rated veteran to be renewed over a low-rated freshman, but will Fox really commit to two more seasons of Mindy at this level? I have a hard time seeing that happening, so Mindy likely needs either to make a big run or for some more shows to fail.
Moving away from The Mindy Project, Fox gave us the strangest news of the week when, on Wednesday, it announced that the premiere of Almost Human was being moved. Originally scheduled to debut on November 4th with the return of Sleepy Hollow after that show’s brief hiatus, Fox pushed Human’s debut back two weeks, giving it a two-night premiere, with the first episode following a late NFL game on November 17th and the second episode debuting the next night. The move also allows Sleepy Hollow to have two more weeks with its Bones lead-in.
The move, in and of itself is actually a good one. What is so confusing is that Fox waited so long to make this decision. In fact, it came so abruptly that Fox’s advertisers working the World Series didn’t get the memo, causing them to run an ad behind home plate of the first game still promoting the show’s November 4th debut. Nothing has changed for Fox in the last month. Why they waited so long to make this completely sensible decision is beyond me.
The World Series is back and once again giving a temporary boost to Fox’s ratings. The network could really use a long series, though, to get them back to even. As it is right now, the network is still down 5% over last fall, keeping them in last place for the moment.
|"Revolution's" logo is the best part of "Revolution"|
NBC’s troubling Tenure Two show is Revolution. It was a monster hit last fall, debuting to huge ratings airing after the first fall run of The Voice. But the show couldn’t sustain its high numbers, falling throughout the season especially after its return in the spring. NBC moved the show to Wednesday night this year, forcing it to survive on its own and, while it has done okay, it’s only barely breaking the aforementioned 80% mark at 86.1%. It’s also not doing a very good job at providing a lead-in for SVU, which has already lost half its premiere audience. Now, SVU’s struggles are as much do its timeslot as anything else (it would likely be much better served airing at 9:00 instead of 8:00) but Revolution certainly isn’t helping matters.
In other NBC news, the network’s desperate attempt to save Sean Saves the World and The Michael J Fox Show was a disaster in its first week. As I mentioned last week, NBC decided to put Parks and Recreation on hiatus for most of the rest of the fall, instead airing The Voice and SNL specials in its stead. Well, this week’s repeat of The Voice notched a 1.3 rating, the exact same number that Parks and Rec had been putting up on its own. This led, obviously, to Sean and Fox pulling the exact same ratings that they did last week, airing after Parks and Rec and the now canceled Welcome to the Family.
NBC is still in first place, and they’re still up from last year. But it’s tough watching their Wednesday and Thursday lineups tank so badly, especially when NBC Thursday has traditionally been the night of “Must Watch TV.” Hopefully, NBC can get something figured out for next year, but for this season it seems to be a lost cause.
|"Nashville" has a lot of terrible images on GIS. This is the least bad one.|
ABC is in an extremely strange position right now. The other networks have made extension/cancelation decisions on the vast majority of their new shows, with the lone exception being NBC’s Sean Saves the World (I don’t count CBS’s Hostages which is certain to be canceled though it hasn’t been already). ABC, on the other hand, has only made two decisions: giving a full-season order to SHIELD and canceling Lucky 7. Every one of its other new shows is still in limbo.
Since ABC has been so reluctant to make decisions on its shows, I figured I would use this space to give them a hand. Wonderland is dead in its current home. Betrayal is dead no matter where it ends up. So why not swap the two or, at the very least, cancel Betrayal and let Wonderland air where it was always meant to: with parent Once Upon a Time on Sunday nights. As is, both shows are sure to be canceled after 13 episodes, if not earlier. They might as well try to save one of them.
As for ABC’s comedies, The Goldbergs, Super Fun Night, and Back in the Game have all pretty well stabilized, so it makes sense to give them all full-season orders. Whether Super Fun Night stays in the prime post-Modern Family timeslot is up for debate. Personally, I think The Goldbergs would do far better there (or at least is more compatible), so ABC should switch those two in January. Unfortunately, Trophy Wife’s ratings aren’t worthy of a back-nine order, but it’s such a good show that I’d love to see ABC let it air its first 13 at least. I wouldn’t be surprised to see the show canceled, though.
ABC actually has two Tenure Two shows: Nashville and The Neighbors. The latter is a difficult show to evaluate since it airs on Friday nights. But all you probably need to know is that its ratings are currently worse than the ratings for Malibu Country, the series that aired in its timeslot last year and was canceled in May. Nashville, on the other hand, is just straddling that 80% line at 79.4% of the network average. The show does air at 9:00, which is a tougher timeslot than normal, but unlike the other networks, ABC doesn’t really have as much trouble at 9:00 (see Scandal and Castle), so that’s unlikely to be much of an excuse for Nashville.
It’s easy to look at ABC and feel bad for the last place network. But what gets me is that they’re really not in that bad of a position. They just lack that one big event series that they can put on for 3-4 hours per week. NBC has The Voice and Sunday Night Football. Fox has The X-Factor and American Idol. CBS just has a lot of highly rated shows. ABC’s series aren’t that poorly-rated, but neither do they crack the top ten much. Until they find such a show, it’s unlikely that ABC will be able to move out of fourth place.
|Lucy Liu and Jonny Lee Miller in "Elementary." No joke, just awesome.|
Elementary is, perhaps, the most intriguing of the Tenure Twos. This was the show that likely didn’t reach CBS’s expectations last year, especially after the network gave it the post-Super Bowl spot. But it still pulled in decent ratings, especially given its 9:00 timeslot, by far the worst time for CBS shows to air. This year its lead-in has been down thanks to the departure of Person of Interest for Tuesday night but that still doesn’t explain why it fell to a 1.5 two weeks ago.
What has surprised me most about the Tenure Twos (and likely explains their struggles) is that their ratings this fall have basically been on par with where they finished last spring. Most shows see their best ratings in the fall, drop throughout the spring, then rebound a bit the next fall to start the cycle all over again. For instance, Modern Family earned a 3.3 in its penultimate episode last season, debuted to a 4.2 this year and has stayed in that same 3.9-4.2 range since. The Tenure Twos, on the other hand, have experienced no such fall bump. In its most recent episode, The Mindy Project pulled the exact same 1.3 rating that it got in its last three episodes last year. Revolution finished last season on a 1.9 and returned to a 1.8. Nashville received the smallest of bumps (from 1.9 to 2.0) but has dropped forty percent from there. And Elementary has only barely been able to maintain the 1.8-2.0 ratings it was earning last spring.
Perhaps that’s the key to success on the broadcast networks: build from spring to fall. Most shows are going to have worse ratings in the spring than they do at the season’s beginning. That’s the nature of television. But the shows that are successful are those that can rebound the next year, to start the drop all over again.
Season to Date Network Rating Averages (Adults 18-49) –
NBC – 2.79 (Up 1.8% YTD, Up 0.8% Week-to-Week, Down 12.7% from Premiere Week)
CBS – 2.10 (Down 6.9% YTD, Down 1.9% Week-to-Week, Down 29.0% from Premiere Week)
ABC – 2.05 (Down 3.6% YTD, Down 2.4% Week-to-Week, Down 23.3% from Premiere Week)
Fox – 1.98 (Down 4.7% YTD, Up 3.0% Week-to-Week, Down 10.0% from Premiere Week)
New Renewals, Pickups, and Cancelations –
Dads – Full-Season Order
So thoughts? Comments? Just want to tell me my blog sucks? Let me know in the comments or on Twitter @TyTalksTV.