TV Ratings Game: Finding The Break-Even Number

Take the emotion and quality out of the equation. Breaking even on network television has never been about stuff you can't research, measure, or amortize.

To hear some NBC executives tell it, the new Jay Leno show at 10 p.m. only needs a 1.7 rating among 18-49 viewers to break even. Others say it's as low as a 1.2 number. For a normal scripted network TV drama, the line of profitability is probably around a 2.1 to 2.5 rating among 18-49 viewers -- depending. It depends on the show's cable, syndication, international and licensing fees, as well as those scary production budgets, which can range around $2 million to $3 million an episode.

The savings on Leno's new show are obvious. The cost for an individual episode is just $350,000. Including his salary, production costs could come to $70 million a year -- versus the collective $350 million NBC has been paying in year-round development, licensing and programming costs for its 10 p.m. dramas.



The positive is that dramas can be repeated and earn big ratings -- but maybe not NBC's dramas. Look at how CBS still performs with all of its crime procedurals in rerun. Leno's downside is, there isn't much repeatability for his shows.

Right now, NBC's season average of "My Own Worst Enemy" has been around a 2.0 rating, for a high-profile, quality show that has been canceled. By comparison, Leno has been averaging a 1.4 rating among 18-49 viewers, about 30% lower than "Enemy."

Expect Leno's numbers to grow somewhat in prime time, with his median age dropping -- a bit - from the mid-50s range. Will this bring him to the magic 1.7 level? He'll need a few tricks to go his way.

If TV networks dramas at or under a 2.0 rating, are not making money, what does this mean for game shows, reality shows, and news shows? Are they at a 1.5 or 1.2 break-even number?

NBC takes great pride in the fact that its cable networks' programs are profitable -- at much lower rating thresholds. That's because cable executives can include monthly cable subscriber fees in their program cost analyses.

Maybe NBC will start adding retransmission fees to its program formulas in future years. In a couple of years, network TV programs will then be on the same playing field as cable TV shows.

Then, by 2015, there should be no complaints from NBC -- especially after the network announces Conan O'Brien's new 9 p.m. time slot.

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