The Other Queen’s Gambit

John Carroll Lynch in Big Sky; Queen Latifah in The Equalizer. Photo: Left: Courtesy of ABC, Right: Courtesy of CBS; Photo-Illustration: Vulture

Queen Latifah, star of the new CBS drama The Equalizer, isn’t going to save network television — because, quite frankly, nobody can. The medium is indisputably in decline; the glory days are never coming back. Yet the ratings for her show have been surprisingly strong so far: Its premiere retained more of its Super Bowl lead-in (40 percent) than any hour-long scripted show to air after the championship game since Glee in 2011, while last Sunday’s follow-up episode was the second most-watched entertainment broadcast of the week and is on track to draw nearly 11 million viewers (including on-demand replays). Game changer? Hardly. But The Equalizer’s early success hints that broadcasters haven’t completely lost their ability to create culturally relevant content — and, more important, connect it to a sizable audience. And it’s not the only glimmer of hope for the networks this season:

With its jaw-dropping pilot reveal and subsequent twists, ABC’s Big Sky did something rare for any TV shows these days: It added viewers between its first and second broadcasts. (And its premiere was big, giving ABC its largest audience for a new show in 35-day cume ratings since 2017’s The Good Doctor.) Ratings have stayed strong, with February episodes matching the show’s November highs.

Fox’s Monday duo of 9-1-1 and 9-1-1: Lone Star have given the network its version of NBC’s Chicago franchise or CBS’s NCIS universe. Rather than making them fade, pairing the shows on the same night has boosted them both, allowing Fox to average over 10 million on the night in many weeks. Indeed, their delayed season premieres in January gave Fox its best Monday numbers in five years.

It’s far too early to say much about the long-term prospects of the new NBC comedies Young Rock and Kenan, but their Tuesday-night debuts were awfully encouraging for the network. While total viewership was modest (5 million and 4 million, respectively), the two shows gave NBC its best comedy debuts among adults under 50 since 2017. Admittedly, NBC hasn’t had much luck with new comedies in recent years, so the bar was low. Yet these first numbers were in line with what more established hits are doing on network TV these days, proving that at the very least, NBC’s relentless multi-platform promotion paid off and convinced audiences to check out what the Peacock had cookin’.

Let’s be clear: By themselves, these ratings should not be interpreted as some sign of network TV’s sudden resurgence. Even as recently as five years ago, most of this season’s standout shows would have been considered mild disappointments or worse. (This is in the key demo; clearing 10 million viewers with DVR replays has been a benchmark of success for a while now.) But what’s also true is that, over the past decade, networks have gotten better at figuring out how to live in a world of ever-shrinking Nielsen numbers — because, of course, they have no choice.

For one thing, the same-day and even the seven-day DVR ratings that get widely reported don’t represent anywhere near the totality of viewing for network shows. Broadcast-obituary writers reflexively dismiss it as spin when networks release ratings that add up how a show performs across multiple platforms over four-to-five weeks. But it really isn’t spin, at least not totally. This isn’t exactly a news flash, but viewers simply don’t watch TV the way they used to now that streaming shows on demand has become so easy, even for broadcast-native programming. Why shouldn’t broadcasters tout cumulative ratings information which better represents a show’s actual appeal? After all, HBO and Netflix generate positive headlines all the time for releasing data demonstrating how many viewers watched (or even simply sampled) series across the course of a month and, in the case of HBO, across multiple platforms.That’s how Game of Thrones was able to claim an audience in excess of 20 million viewers by the end of its run.

And while it’s true that advertisers don’t value delayed viewing the same way they do live viewing, ad revenue from premiere telecasts is simply not the only way networks make money anymore. They sell commercials on Hulu and their own platforms, for instance. Or because nets now own most of the shows they air, they profit when a show gets sold to streaming platforms around the world or here in the States. Plus, unlike the old days, shows don’t need to make 80 or 100 episodes to get that backend streaming cash. There’s also clear demand for these programs: For all the attention on making their own originals, streamers still very much want network-style programming as part of their mix. Nielsen’s weekly streaming ratings are regularly dominated by past and current broadcast shows because audiences still want the lean-back, easy-to-digest story lines at which broadcast series excel. Netflix demonstrates this not just when it buys up reruns but every time it “saves” a canceled broadcast series such as Lucifer or Designated Survivor.

To be sure, Netflix isn’t paying nearly as much for network reruns, or snapping up nearly as many broadcast shows, as it once did. Some of that easy money is less easy to get. But networks are adapting here too by building up their own streaming services and erasing the walls between their various platforms. Comcast and Disney, for example, recently moved to consolidate their development teams so the execs who make shows for their broadcast networks (NBC and ABC, respectively) are also working on projects for their general-entertainment streaming platforms (Peacock and Hulu). This is all weird and even a little depressing for anyone who remembers the age of network-TV dominance.

But it is also a reason to be hopeful. Comcast and ABC (and, of course, CBS and Fox) aren’t giving up on the idea of making TV shows aimed at a broad audience — comedies with laugh tracks, dramas where the hero neatly solves the murder in the course of an hour. What we think of as “network TV” shows aren’t going anywhere. And the ratings and buzz for shows like The Equalizer and Big Sky demonstrate that audiences are very happy they’re sticking around.

The Other Queen’s Gambit