With barely two months left to go before the 2015–16 television season officially wraps, the ratings news for the old-school broadcast networks remains decidedly grim. Overall, the so-called Big Four are collectively drawing about 7 percent fewer viewers for their first-run programming than they were a year ago at this time, continuing a pattern of substantial decline that’s been in place for several years now. Part of the problem has been a paucity of breakout hits: ABC’s Quantico and NBC’s Blindspot are doing well, but no comedy or drama launched since last fall has come close to matching the firepower of 2014–15 winners such as Empire or How to Get Away With Murder. But what’s really hurting broadcasters is how quickly audiences appear to be abandoning established shows — particularly those launched in the past year or two.
To illustrate the exodus from linear broadcasts of network series, Vulture has gathered the prime-time averages for the dozens of returning shows from the Big Four and the CW, and then processed how much each program’s audience of adult viewers under 50 either increased, decreased, or, in a handful of cases, remained unchanged versus the same point in the season last year. As the chart below demonstrates, roughly 85 percent of the 80 non-sports programs returning this season have been hit with viewership declines among the younger audiences advertisers target. Worse, these aren’t small declines: About 70 percent of veteran shows are down by double digits, while a full third have dropped by more than 20 percent. When Vulture first began charting the performance of returning network shows back in 2013, the majority of shows on the air were either up, flat, or down less than 10 percent year-to-year. Today only 30 percent of non-freshman series can make that claim.
What’s perhaps most depressing about these declines is the age of so many of this season’s biggest losers. Networks have always had to deal with shows shedding viewers as they grew older, but, until relatively recently, big ratings drops tended to come after shows had been on the air for several years and audiences simply moved on to shiny new objects. Now, in the era of viewing on demand, it seems audiences are increasingly having sordid affairs with new shows and then quickly moving on: More than a dozen sophomore shows are down by 15 percent or more, including buzz magnets such as How to Get Away With Murder (-27 percent) and Last Man on Earth (-25 percent). Even Empire, which is currently tracking up compared to its performance last year, saw substantial audience erosion over the course of its nine-episode run last fall, and it may yet end up down year-to-year when the season wraps in May. By contrast, three of the five non-sports series actually up versus last season — 60 Minutes, Law & Order: SVU, and The Bachelor — have all been on the air for more than a decade.
As ugly as these numbers are for the networks, they’re also not the whole story. While the declining ratings illustrated in our chart generally lead to lower ad revenue, broadcasters increasingly are making money in ways not as directly tied to Nielsen numbers. The same streaming services that compete with networks for eyeballs are also handing over hundreds of millions for the right to air reruns of broadcast (and cable) shows. ABC probably isn’t very happy with the big ratings declines for How to Get Away With Murder, but whatever pain it’s feeling is no doubt lessened by the big check Netflix cut in exchange for streaming rights to the show. Plus, the Big Four networks and the CW can take some solace in knowing that it’s not just broadcast shows taking a hit these days. AMC’s The Walking Dead remains a massive hit by any measure, but after years of continuous audience growth, season six will likely be the first in the show’s history to average a (slightly) smaller audience than the one before.
Note: Our chart is based on Nielsen data comparing all available viewing data for the season through late February against Nielsen's measurement for the similar time frame during the 2014–15 season. We used so-called "live plus seven" data for adult viewers between the ages of 18 and 49, which means this data does include DVR replays. It does not, however, include audiences who watch via Hulu, nor does it fully capture all video-on-demand viewership. While the overall trend of decline is unlikely to change between now and the official end of the season in late May, some percentages will change over the next two months. We'll post a chart using final data from the 2015-16 once all said data has been processed in early June.