The Strength Of Broadcast TV -- And Why Netflix is Catching Up

As the prime-time broadcast TV season winds down, we are starting to see headlines about which network is going end up in first place.  But does it really matter which network “wins,” when none of them can muster even a 2.0 average rating among adults 18-49 or 25-54, and less than half a rating point separates first and fourth place?  

Of the top 30 rated original scripted prime-time series among adults 18-49, nine are on ABC, nine are on CBS, eight are on NBC, and four are on FOX.  So which network has a razor-thin average rating lead is not particularly relevant to advertisers or to viewers.

Despite audience declines, however, broadcast network ratings are still significantly higher than ad-supported cable ratings — not in total, but by network and by program.  Except for ESPN, no ad-supported cable network averages even half a rating point among adults 18-49 or 25-54 in prime time.  I

If you look at original scripted series season-to-date, AMC’s “The Walking Dead” is still the highest-rated series on television.  But then you go through 45 broadcast series before you get to the next highest rated ad-supported cable series, FX’s “American Horror Story.”  Then there are a dozen more broadcast series before you get to the third highest rated cable series, AMC’s “Fear the Walking Dead.”  So, 48 of the top 50, and 57 of the top 60 original scripted series on ad-supported television are on one of the Big Four broadcast networks.



Another positive sign for the broadcast networks is that half of the top 10 rated original scripted series among adults 18-49 debuted over the past two seasons:“This is Us,” “Young Sheldon,” “The Good Doctor,” “Will & Grace,” and “911.”  There is no question that the broadcast networks are still the best platforms for creating widely viewed hit series.

There is also no question that the best platforms for promoting a new (or current) television program is on-air advertising in similar programs.  And there is no question that the best vehicles within this platform are the broadcast networks.  Nothing else can provide the same reach or attract the same level of viewer sampling.

As we approach the upfront buying season, the broadcast networks are sure to continue telling us (correctly) that they remain the best and most effective place for advertising dollars.  And yet, they will almost certainly also continue to not take their own advice.  When an “Empire,” “This is Us,” or “The Good Doctor,” take off, people start believing in the power of broadcast television again, and it becomes a season-long press story. So not promoting a new show to the largest group of your prime prospects simply boggles the mind.  

But while the broadcast networks still stubbornly refuse to promote one another’s programming, they happily accept advertising from their real competition: OTT streaming services.  For example, I saw numerous promotions for “Jessica Jones,” which just dropped its second season on Netflix, on the Winter Olympic and various other broadcast network series, yet don’t recall seeing any promos for ABC’s new excellent legal drama, “For the People” (because I hadn’t watched much ABC leading up to its debut).

Why can Hulu, which is co-owned by Disney (ABC), Comcast (NBC), 20th Century Fox (FOX), and Time Warner (CW), advertise on CBS, but CBS All Access cannot advertise on ABC, NBC, or FOX?  For no other reason than it has CBS in its name?  Change the name to All Access, and it would be able to advertise anywhere.  Ridiculous!   

Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon Prime Video now enjoy a tremendous advantage over the broadcast networks because they have a much larger platform on which to promote their content.

2 comments about "The Strength Of Broadcast TV -- And Why Netflix is Catching Up".
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  1. Ed Papazian from Media Dynamics Inc, March 21, 2018 at 7:16 a.m.

    Some valid points, Steve. Regarding average minute 18-49 and 25-54 primetime ratings being so low for the broadcast networks' primetime fare that's largely because the median age of their audience is so high ( about 55 years if you include Fox ) that the "younger" breaks are, of necessity, very low rated. But I agree with you about the reach potential of the broadcast networks---providing you spread your buys around and use many shows on most or all of the networks. One reason it's greater than cable is the percentage of homes that can receive cable vs broadcast fare. Here, broadcast leads by about 95% to 81% ---the difference being broadcast-only households where, of course, the broadcast networks perform much higher rating-wise and cable is non- existant.

  2. Douglas Ferguson from College of Charleston, March 21, 2018 at 10:41 a.m.

    One could also worry that mass exposure to Netflix, even by those who still watch broadcast networks, has taught them to hate commercial interruptions. For a long time, breaks were widely tolerated when there were few alternatives -- but audiences might opt to binge instead of trying that new show this fall.

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