The new broadcast-TV season is well into its second month, which means there’s also now plenty of data for television-ratings junkies (guilty!) to obsess over. Some broad trends are obvious: CBS and NBC still lead the pack; ABC is making solid gains versus recent seasons; and Fox is having a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad season. But beyond the headlines of the season, a few other stories are starting to emerge as well. Vulture pored over the Nielsen numbers and came up away with five early takeaways from the 2014–15 campaign. (Housekeeping note: Most evaluations in this story are based on four weeks of so-called live-plus-seven Nielsen ratings, which combine same-day viewing with a week’s worth of measured DVR replays.)
It’s been a good fall for new dramas …
The best news for broadcasters this fall has come in the form of new hourlong successes. In terms of raw numbers, ABC’s How to Get Away With Murder is far and away the year’s breakout: It stands as network TV’s No. 1 drama among adults under 50, surging past lead-in Scandal and last year’s hits The Blacklist and Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. Over at CBS, the Eye has launched two big early drama winners, with Scorpion doing better than the comedies it replaced Mondays at 9, and NCIS: New Orleans (predictably) proving to be a perfect partner for NCIS. A third CBS drama newcomer, Madam Secretary, is averaging nearly 15 million viewers each week, fitting perfectly between 60 Minutes and The Good Wife as part of the CBS Sunday lineup of upscale hours. And while they’re not hits, young dramas such as Scorpion and The Mysteries of Laura have done well enough to merit full-season orders from CBS and NBC, respectively. (ABC’s Forever might also stick around.)
But in some ways, the most impressive drama success story this season may be Fox’s Gotham. Unlike the fall’s other drama hits, the DC Comics–produced fantasy-procedural, which kicks off Fox’s lineup Mondays at 8, didn’t have the advantage of launching behind an established show. It also began its existence airing opposite the biggest shows on both NBC (The Voice) and CBS (which aired original and rerun episodes of The Big Bang Theory on Mondays during the first month of the season). And yet despite these disadvantages, Gotham’s under-50 audience is second only to Murder among freshman dramas. It’s pulling nearly the same numbers as the Peacock’s blockbuster Blacklist, and its demo numbers are better than any drama (new or old) on CBS. Fox may have had a near-disastrous start to the fall season, but Gotham is shaping up to be a very shiny silver lining.
… but a bad start for some of last year’s high-concept freshman hours.
As good as Gotham looks now, the sophomore performance of some of last year’s drama “hits” serves as a cautionary tale about getting too excited about first-year ratings. Fox seemed to score a Monday night home run last fall with the launch of Sleepy Hollow, which this time last year actually had slightly bigger ratings than Gotham now. But so far this season, even with a Gotham lead-in, Sleepy’s under-50 audience is down about 25 percent from its freshman average. ABC’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. has also lost a quarter of its season-one audience, while the Alphabet network’s spring sensation Resurrection is down about 35 percent six months after its launch. These declines aren’t completely disastrous, at least in the case of Sleepy and S.H.I.E.L.D. Those two shows still have decent-size (and loyal) core audiences and stand a good chance of making it to 100 episodes and syndication. But sophomore slumps are becoming increasingly common for broadcasters, as viewers sample shows and then move on. Networks now have to decide whether it’s better to move on (Revolution, Smash) or find a way to make lower numbers work (2 Broke Girls, Revenge).
Gravity may — may — be catching up to The Big Bang Theory.
It’s impossible to describe CBS’s geek-com as anything but a juggernaut. In its eighth season, it remains broadcast TV’s highest-rated show among viewers under 50, with its ratings nearly 20 percent ahead of its closest network rivals. Even the four Monday-night reruns of the show CBS aired this fall generated a bigger young-adult audience than first-run installments of almost every other show on TV. And yet, as big as Bang is, its ratings this fall are lower than they were a year ago. This wouldn’t even be worth noting for just about any other show on TV, since virtually everything these days sheds viewers from year to year … except Big Bang. Despite its age, its trend had been one of uninterrupted growth in recent years. The show’s first four episodes in fall 2011 averaged 16.9 million viewers; in 2012, 19.3 million; and last fall, a whopping 23.5 million. But CBS’s decision to temporarily relocate Big Bang to Mondays this fall (to make room for the NFL on Thursdays) halted the show’s momentum, if only by a smidgen. Viewership for the season’s first four episodes, including seven days of DVR replays, fell about 2 million, to 21.6 million bazinga-loving fans. And since returning to Thursday, the show’s same-day demo ratings have been down anywhere from 10 to 20 percent versus year-ago episodes (erosion that may disappear once DVR replays are tallied).
These small declines aren’t at all a sign that Big Bang is suddenly in trouble, or even anything other than the aforementioned juggernaut. It’s even possible Bang will start growing again, if not this season, then maybe a couple years from now, when CBS inevitably announces a final season for the show (see also: Friends). But CBS’s decision to move the show to Mondays, while a very smart scheduling play (it provided a perfect launching pad for Scorpion), seems not to have been without some (very tiny) cost to Big Bang’s Nielsen bottom line.
A number of veteran shows are demonstrating surprising resilience.
It’s become almost standard to expect returning shows to be down every season in this era of audience fragmentation and non-linear viewing. New Girl, for example, has shed young viewers every fall it’s been on: It averaged a 6 rating among those under 50 during its first month on the air in 2011, dropped to a 4.1 at the start of 2012, a 3.5 last season, and a 2.2 the first month of this season. Similar, if less severe, declines have affected shows such as Modern Family and 2 Broke Girls. But a few established series have bucked the trend this season, most notably ABC’s Once Upon a Time. Thanks to savvy (and quick) thinking by the show’s producers, Once was able to put together a Frozen-themed story line less than a year after the hit Disney movie opened in theaters. The result: Ratings this fall are up 13 percent in the under-50 demo. ABC’s Scandal has also defied gravity, jumping 8 percent in the demo this fall even after (or maybe because of) a move to 9 p.m. Thursday.
Over at NBC, while Mysteries of Laura may be drawing fewer young viewers than Revolution, it’s brought 3 million more older viewers to the network on Wednesdays — an influx that has boosted viewership of the seemingly ageless Law & Order: SVU by nearly 20 percent compared to its 2013–14 season average. Also on Wednesdays, CBS’s ancient Survior and Criminal Minds are both reaching more viewers than a year ago. And despite both being more than a decade old, Sunday stalwarts The Simpsons and Family Guy have proven they’re still culturally relevant, translating a well-publicized crossover episode and other stunts into double-digit ratings gains for both 'toons.
Quick trigger-fingers have come back to haunt the networks.
Remember Almost Human, that Fox sci-fi procedural the network aired on Monday nights late last fall and earlier this year? The network canceled the show in May because, well … it’s hard to really understand why. Sources indicate Fox execs thought its price tag was too high and that it would never become a “big” hit. And yet, over its 13-week run on Fox, Human averaged a 2.9 rating among viewers under 50 and an audience of around 9 million viewers. That 2.9 demo rating is higher than every new or returning drama on Fox other than Gotham, as well as every live-action comedy on the network. Likewise, NBC pulled the plug on second-year drama Revolution after the show’s ratings took a dive after it relocated to Wednesdays. The network’s disappointment was understandable, given its season-one heights and its overall meh ratings in the 8 p.m. slot. But over its 22-episode run last season, Revolution averaged a 2.3 rating among viewers under 50. The show that replaced it in the time slot, Mysteries of Laura? It’s averaged a mere 1.9 in the demo during its first four weeks, about 15 percent below Revolution.
And here’s one more fun fact: During its first month on the air last fall, ABC’s 2013 comedy Trophy Wife averaged a 2.2 rating in the under-50 demo. That number is bigger than both of ABC’s two new 2014 Tuesday comedies (Selfie and the now-dead Manhattan Love Story) or any of NBC’s three freshman Tuesday/Thursday comedies. Sure, Trophy Wife saw some serious ratings declines as the season went on, as S.H.I.E.L.D. and The Goldbergs (its Tuesday lead-ins) eroded. There’s no guarantee it wouldn’t also be struggling had it come back this fall. But had ABC kept Trophy in favor of, say, ordering the doomed-from-the-start Manhattan Love Story, the network would have had one less new show launch to worry about this fall, and almost certainly wouldn’t be doing any worse on Tuesdays. As one network exec told us recently, “These days, it’s better stick with a low-rated show unless you know for certain you can do better.”