Long-term, TV’s big broadcast networks need much to maintain their continued viewer and advertising dominance: More hits, perhaps a slowing down of TV viewer erosion, and building new digital platforms that attract meaningful advertising revenues.
In the short term, TV executives have more specific hurdles -- like getting a strong reality show franchise, possibly a night of decently performing comedies, younger viewership, and possibly a compelling serial drama like 24 or Lost where nonstop original episodes keep viewers tuned in for 13 weeks in a row.
If that isn’t enough to deal with, TV programming and scheduling dynamics keep changing and/or losing their effectiveness.
For example, new shows continue to get less help from existing lead-in programming -- shows that now have less-than-strong ratings, be it Survivor, Grey’sAnatomy, or Two and a Half Men. Fewer TV viewers sample new shows because of this trend. Even in the age of time-shifted viewing, the lack of a lead-in show is important, especially for the fifty percent of the country that doesn’t have traditional DVR technology.
Only a select few shows can give a fairly predictable lift to a new series. Brad Adgate, senior VP and corporate media director for Horizon Media, says this small list includes Fox’s AmericanIdol, NBC’s The Voice, ABC’s ModernFamily and CBS’s The Big Bang Theory and NCIS franchises.
TV executives also have to deal with another bit of fading traditional TV strategy for the other 50 percent of U.S. TV viewers that have new time-shifted technology. “Appointment viewing is disappearing,” says Adgate. Everyone can watch later — on DVR machines, video-on-demand services, or digital entertainment platforms, he says.
From all of this, TV networks continue to look for more risk to excite viewers with big TV “events.” And with that comes big failures — from Fox’s TerraNova of a year ago to, most recently, ABC’s ZeroHour.
“For this pilot season, broadcast networks’ log lines for shows remind me of movies,” says David Scardino, entertainment specialist for Santa Monica, Calif.–based media agency RPA. And that can be a problem. He adds: “If you are going to sustain a show for 22 weeks of a season, shows almost have to be vague to a certain extent. Many premises are too closed-ended. ‘So what happens after he finds her killer?’ It basically all comes down to execution.”
Continuing broadcast erosion, anywhere from 3 percent to 7 percent in many ratings metrics, as well as competition from strong original cable programming, are forcing tough decisions.
Broadcast networks have their work cut out for them. Here’s a report card for broadcast networks and some selected cable networks — where they stand now, and what they need.
The long-time number one leader — and industry leader in the 1990s — lost its way starting in the new millennium.
Finally in the spring 2011, things started to turn around with a new singing reality show The Voice, as well as promising results for music-oriented scripted drama Smash. This continued into fall 2012, when TheVoice continued its high rating level, coupled with super ratings from SundayNightFootball and new drama Revolution (which aired right after TheVoice).
NBC, for the first time in nearly a decade, was back on top in the 18-49 rating race last fall.
It proved to be short-lived. Early results for this year have NBC has now slipping — not just to second or third place — but to the bottom the broadcast networks ranks in recent weeks. Smash crashed without a strong Voice lead-in, and a new drama DoNoHarm totally mis-fired, and was cancelled after two episodes. Early decent fall results of its comedies: GoOn and GuysWithKids have also stalled.
Some positives: NBC is still younger-skewing than CBS or ABC, evidence from its Thursday comedies.
Another plus: In an ever decreasing world of prime-time viewership to advertising and promote new TV shows, NBCUniversal — more than any other network group — have over a dozen cable networks on which to promote its broadcast network shows.
What does NBC need now? For many analysts, NBC needs old-fashioned program anchors — at 8 p.m. and at 9 p.m on many nights — that can help launch new shows. Can Revolution be one? So far it has performed decently in a 10 p.m. Monday time slot. For example, it earned a 2.2/6 on its April 1 original, tying ABC’s Castle for the top spot.
Season-to-date numbers still have NBC in second place through March 31 at a Nielsen 2.4 live plus seven day average rating among 18-49 viewers, down 8 percent versus a year ago.
The ABC network has had an up-and-down couple of years. Recently, it has been up of sorts. Quietly, it was the number one network in C3 ratings for the fall when looking at non-sports prime-time programming.
The bad news is, all networks — including ABC — have seen declines versus their year-ago ratings results. For ABC, one problem is that Dancing with the Stars continues to flag.
The good news: The show can be a wild card. Brian Hughes, senior VP and head of audience analysis practice for Magna Global, says, “When you have the right cast, it can always bounce back. Look what happened with Bristol Palin.”
One consideration for ABC might be to finally seek more men viewers — possibly with more straight-ahead crime procedurals. More than most networks, ABC has a bunch of female-oriented prime-time serials/soaps, as well as Stars and TheBachelor franchise.
Other industry executives disagree: “ABC was extremely female a few seasons back with DesperateHousewives and other shows,” says Hughes. “And it did well.”
Sam Armando, senior VP and director of strategic intelligence for Starcom Mediavest Group Exchange, says ABC needs to take a scheduling lesson from the likes of CBS where the network can make gains. For example, it should consider replacing one lower-rated but still performing show, with another better-viewed network show — all to make for a better night.
“Maybe you could move Grey’s Anatomy from Thursday to Monday night at 10 p.m., replacing Castle,” he says. Through the fourth quarter 2012, Grey’s was doing a 3.9 Nielsen C3 rating; Castle, a 1.98. Even if Grey’s continues lose a bit more in ratings next year, moving it to Castle’s Monday time slot might work.
Armando says Scandal, which came on line mid-season last year, looks good: “Audience-wise it’s got momentum. It kind of reminds me of CBS’s PersonofInterest.” He says this is where fall ratings for the CBS show grew after starting up in the spring.
ABC sits in fourth place, down 8 percent to a 2.3 average Nielsen live plus seven day season to date rating among 18-49 viewers.
CBS has been the model of consistency for years — all a big lure for national advertisers who like TV platforms they can count on.
Making fewer programming moves year in and year out than other networks helps CBS compete against other less consistent networks.
For example, RPA’s Scardino says C3 ratings for all 24 new broadcast shows in the 2012-2013 season so far have been down 22 percent in 18-49 viewership versus the 37 new shows of a year ago. But 86 returning network shows this season are only down 3 percent versus returning shows of a year ago. Among total viewers, new shows this year are down 18 percent from new shows of a year ago; this year’s returning shows down just 1 percent.
Unlike other networks, CBS has deft at the difficult process of launching comedies — 2 Broke Girls and Mike& Molly in particular. But this year Adgate says all networks have suffered in the new comedy program department. CBS had to drop new show Partners from its powerful Monday night comedy lineup shortly after [failed] liftoff.
CBS does have its soft spots — especially on Friday nights. “That is where they have struggled the most,” says Magna Global's Hughes. CBS tried to bolster Fridays at the start of the season with MadeinJersey, about a street-smart young woman attorney from a working class background, working in a New York law firm. It was pulled after only two episodes.
Right now the network has been struggling to find a companion to existing shows CSI: New York and BlueBloods. CBS has recently launched GoldenBoy about the youngest ever New York City Police Commissioner.
CBS is currently the 18-49 leader among the broadcasters through March 31, with a 3.0 Nielsen season-to-date live plus seven day average rating, down 3 percent from a year ago.
Fox's past success may be difficult to compete with, especially for consumers who expect big and bold buzzworthy programming like American Idol.
A year ago Fox finally seemed to be on its way. For the first time ever, it figured out its annual fall programming and scheduling problem — this coming with the usual disruption of Major League Baseball’s playoffs and World Series.
With the debut of AmericanIdol wannabe, singing competition show TheXFactor, as well as good results from new shows NewGirl and highly touted sci-fi adventure TerraNova, it won the fall 2011 period among 18-49 viewers.
But now Fox is on the back-foot again. TerraNova is gone. Though Nova was a top ten show among certain demos, says Scardino, it was too expensive for its modest rating level. Fox’s other strong fall 2011 debuting shows, X Factor and NewGirl, have seen lower ratings this year.
The positives: AmericanIdol, while slipping, hasn’t descended to the depths of other shows. Also it can still give a boost to new shows. And though XFactor didn’t become the big blockbuster a la Idol, it continued to earn decent viewership for the fall.
Recently Fox has struck some decent ratings with new series TheFollowing, a show about serial murderers. Not only was its series debut higher than the lead-in ratings from Bones on Mondays, but Fox scored higher ratings for its second original show — a rare occurrence for any new broadcast network show.
That’s good news, says Magna Global's Hughes: “Reality stuff will carry you for a while. In the end, scripted TV is the real bread and butter of the networks.”
Fox is down some 24 percent in 18-49 viewership season to date through March 31 to a 2.5 average primetime rating.
Mini-broadcast network CW is now a different kind of programmer — one that depends on time-shifting or digital next-day viewing, as well as lucrative revenue from Netflix, which gets to run CW’s shows on a season-delay basis.
During the upfront 2012, executives said, the young-skewing, mostly women 18-34 network’s aim was to expand its audience — slightly — going after some older viewers and young men. One of its big promising shows this season has been the more male-focused Arrow.
As a consequence of this and other factors, CW isn't an entire “young”-skewing network. CW median age is 40 years, says Horizon’s Adgate.
SMGX’s Armando says VampireDiaries is doing well, with Beauty & the Beast less so. But he says: “They should continue to focus on 18-34.” That’s because, he says, it does a good job in attracting new viewers who are using new digital media, whether that’s DVRs, VOD, digital, or xBox.
CW has dropped 13 percent in Nielsen live plus seven day ratings, season to-date through March 3 to a 0.7 average primetime rating through March 31.
Overall cable network viewership continues to climb. But this upsurge isn’t among the top 10 or even top 20 networks. “All the growth in cable is coming from below the top 25 networks,” says RPA’s Scardino.
Still, a few have managed to make the move to a top cable status — especially for History with the likes of Pawn Stars. Reality TV is as dominant as ever for some networks — giving the likes of A&E, Bravo, E!, Discovery and Comedy Central strong identifiable brands.
Strong scripted cable TV programming has been the real story in recent years, especially with the likes of AMC Network’s Walking Dead, where some episodes have actually beaten broadcast networks’ fare.
SMGX’s Armando says some cable dramas — AMC’s Dead and Mad Men, FX’s Sons of Anarchy to name a few — have seemingly defied TV rating logic. These cable shows can be off the air for months, or over a year, and come back to virtually the same viewership. When broadcast networks do this, Armando says, their shows fail miserably.
While cable networks have indeed been a spur in the side of the broadcast networks, cable hasn’t been immune to broadcast-like problems: Many established cable networks have seen similar viewership erosion in recent years.
USA Network, which has been the perennial leader when looking at 18-49 viewers and overall viewers,has been subject to some viewership erosion. For example, in 2012, its primetime viewership was down 8 percent from the year before to 2.9 million viewers.
Building its success on shows like Royal Pains, BurnNotice, Suits, and WhiteCollar. USA’s recent focus has been to develop dramas with a strong fun — some might say sunnier — component to their story lines.
“USA shows are kind of charming, but they are in a narrow zone of a sweet spot,” says RPA’s Scardino. “They are drama-dies in a way.”
USA could look to expand beyond these boundaries. Already it’s readying a reality show, an aspirational-themed effort called TheMoment, starring
former NFL quarterback
Other analysts suggest USA’s marketing tagline “Characters Welcome” gives the network a perfect opening for future programming expansion. Says SMGX’s Armando: “I wouldn’t be surprised if they started trying to do some comedies.”
Unlike USA, TNT has a different problem — that of its tagline: “We Know Drama.”
SMGX’s Armando says this could pigeonhole the network. Unlike USA, it can’t in theory, do much comedy — though possibly some reality shows. Top-rated dramas like Rizzoli&Isles, MajorCrimes, and Perception are pretty much straight-ahead crime procedurals.
Leverage may be one of their “lighter” dramas, like those you might see on USA. Recently TNT also added another straight-forward drama, David E. Kelley’s MondayMornings, a medical show that reviews specific patients, procedures and stories.
TNT was down 3 percent to 2.2 million total viewers at the end of last year.
TBS benefited greatly this year by scheduling a lot of Big Bang Theory reruns.
While all this is well and good, Magna’s Hughes said, at issue is what development comes down the road. TBS did add original episodes of Cougar Town this season — coming from ABC — and is relying less on Tyler Perry–penned comedies.
Comedies have always been hard to do — and sustain. That said, once they are successful, a network can have them on a long time. “Good sitcoms are like comfort food,” says RPA’s Scardino.
With BigBangTheory doing well seemingly everywhere — on CBS, in TV station syndication — overall Bang awareness has contributed to giving TBS strong overall viewership. It has seen a rocketing 20 percent climb in prime-time viewership to an average 1.9 million viewers at the end of 2012.
Known for its grittiness, with the likes of Rescue Me and Nip/Tuck, FX always has had an edge. But looking behind this, the News Corp. entertainment network actually has a broader mix of programming.
FX not only has cutting-edge dramas, which typically get critics’ attention, such as American Horror Story, Sons of Anarchy, and Justified, but comedies as well: It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, Anger Management, Louis, animated comedy Archer, as well as off-network comedies Two and a Half Men and How I Met Your Mother.
It even does reality/talk —Totally Biased with W. Kamau Bell and Brand X with Russell Brand — as well as airing theatrical movies.
Magna Global’s Hughes says FX may be in somewhat of a better position than many of the other cable networks as “They have a nice balance.” FX primetime ratings drifted lower by the end of 2012, down 8 percent to 1.4 million average viewers.