Back in the 1990s, reporters covering the TV beat struggled with ways to describe just how dominant NBC (no, really: NBC!) had become in the ratings race; there are only so many synonyms for “juggernaut,” after all. Well, CBS circa 2010 isn't quite the monster the Peacock once was – but its early season Nielsen-winning streak is starting to get just a bit annoying to those of us who like a little variety in our weekly ratings recaps. That said: CBS once again romped vs. its broadcast network peers, capturing the most viewers and winning the key demo groups of adults 18–49 and adults 25–54. The last time any network has finished first for the first five weeks of a season (in adults 18–49) was back in 1997 when, yes, NBC blasted out on to the field with a schedule so mighty (thanks to Friends and Seinfeld) that even the presence of losers like Union Square, Men Behaving Badly and Fired Up couldn't halt its momentum.
Overall, CBS averaged 11.6 million viewers last week, miles ahead of ABC (8.9 million), NBC (8 million) and Fox (7.5 million). The race among under-50 viewers was (relatively) much tighter, with CBS (2.9) outrating NBC (2.7), ABC (2.5) and Fox (2.4). If you're wondering just how NBC ended up in second place, despite a fall schedule filled with struggling newcomers, we've got one word for you: Football (more on that below.) Meanwhile, over in cable, TBS got a nice boost from its coverage of the Yankees-Rangers playoff battle: It averaged 4.8 million viewers in prime time last week, making it the No. 1 cable network.
So, yeah, Fox isn't having its best fall ever. Lone Star flopped, Running Wilde is struggling and House is taking a hit vs. Dancing with the Stars. Some media outlets have already started getting worked up over the network's fourth-place finish this year, but in truth, things aren't so bad for Rupert Murdoch's network. Raising Hope appears to be a keeper (and a much-needed live action comedy building block). Glee has been transformed from a promising freshman into a ratings (and pop culture) powerhouse, competing weekly with Modern Family and Grey's Anatomy for the No. 1 slot in adults 18-49. And with the Super Bowl and American Idol certain to bring big numbers next winter, we expect Fox will be neck-and-neck with CBS for the demo lead by March.
Crunching the Numbers
As much as we'd like to attribute NBC's second-place demo finish last week to a resurgent prime-time lineup, fact is, Sunday's NFL showdown between the Vikings and Packers-- the most-watched game ever in NBC's Sunday Night Football history – is wholly responsible for the Peacock's position. With an average audience of 25.7 million viewers and a 9.8 rating in adults 18-49, the game brought in three times as many viewers as NBC usually draws in prime time. It was also the top-rated Sunday show for any network since the Oscars back in March.
NBC does have some encouraging numbers with its regular series, however. While Parenthood appears to be fading in the overnight Nielsen numbers, the show is turning out to be a DVR magnet: It grows an average of 42 percent once seven days of recording data is included, tying with Fringe for the show that benefits most from DVR usage. While NBC can't monetize all of that viewership, it's a sign that viewers are loyal and engaged, and reason enough for NBC to keep it on the air.
Meanwhile, over at ABC, Wednesday comedy The Middle continues to be an unheralded little engine for the network. Despite facing baseball playoff coverage on Fox last week, the show managed to earn its biggest non-premiere audience ever (8.5 million viewers), drawing a bigger tune-in than CBS's established Monday hit How I Met Your Mother. Among adults 18-49, The Middle's 2.6 rating is also quite impressive for a comedy in the 8 p.m. timeslot (Vulture's beloved Community and Chuck struggle to hit a 2.0 each week). Perhaps The Middle star (and Tea Party sympathizer) Patricia Heaton should guest co-host The View every week; last week's two-day stint certainly didn't hurt her show's ratings.