In Depth

Grading the Networks

Ratings Don’t Tell the Whole Story in Broadcast Anymore

After the strike-induced tumult and turmoil of last season, broadcasters were praying things would somehow take a turn for the better during the 2008-09 campaign.

It didn’t happen.

With less than a month left to go before this season ends, four of the five major networks find themselves attracting fewer viewers than this time last year. It’s a particularly disappointing state of affairs because many observers thought it would be easy for the networks to improve over last season, when repeats and reality shows replaced original episodes of shows whose seasons were shortened by the writers’ work stoppage.

“Everybody should be up,” said one veteran network executive. “It’s scary that we’re not.”

And yet, while numbers don’t lie, in the increasingly complex world of network TV audience measurement, they no longer tell the whole story.

“There’s a continuing increase in DVR penetration, as well as the growth of Hulu and other streaming and download services,” said Preston Beckman, the Fox executive in charge of strategic planning. “This is not a year when ups and downs mean as much.”

Some observers question whether the networks will be able to demonstrate any year-to-year growth in the next few years, as viewers continue to flee to other means of watching shows—outlets that aren’t as easy to wring money out of as good old live network viewing.

“I wish everyone who watched ‘The Office’ and ‘30 Rock’ and ‘Heroes’ were watching on television, on their local NBC station and measured by Nielsen,” said Mitch Metcalf, head of scheduling at NBC. “But that’s just not the way it is anymore.”

So how do you tell how the networks are doing?

To render a verdict on the performances of the Big Five this season, TelevisionWeek decided to go beyond the Nielsen numbers to examine how broadcasters are holding up. The raw data remains a key component of any judgment, but it’s also important to consider whether a network launched a new hit, how their veteran series are holding up, the depth of their new-media efforts and the general level of chaos or calm in their executive suites.

Even by those standards, this wasn’t the best of seasons for several networks. The good news: The whole process starts again next month, when a new batch of programs will be unveiled.


FOX

Data dive: Fox will finish No. 1 in adults 18-49 (3.6/10) for the fifth consecutive season, something no network has done since ABC in the early 1990s. Fox’s overall average is down 16%, however, thanks to skewed comparisons: The network boasted football’s Super Bowl and Bowl Championship Series last season, events it couldn’t claim this year. Plus, “We were the network best prepared for the [writers] strike,” said Mr. Beckman. While other networks are benefiting from year-to-year comparisons, Mr. Beckman contends Fox doesn’t have a similar leg up. The network will end the season in second place among all viewers (9.7 million).

Freshman performance: Focusing its fall promotional firepower on “Fringe” paid off for Fox. The sci-fi-tinged drama from J.J. Abrams is one of the season’s few hits, currently ranking as the No. 1 new show in adults 18-49. Comedy “Do Not Disturb” disappeared quickly, however.

Spring tryout “Lie to Me” started strong but has faded since losing its post-”American Idol” perch. Still, there’s a good shot it will be back next season. A longer shot at returning: “Dollhouse,” which has posted predictably low ratings on Friday. But Fox executives are holding out a glimmer of hope for the show, noting its loyal core and its strong DVR numbers. The April 19 premiere of animated comedy “Sit Down, Shut Up” was less impressive, though it’s too soon to talk about that show’s future.

Long-term assets: Some big tentpoles took hits this season, with both “House” and the performance episode of “American Idol” off by double digits (though “Idol” remains the No. 1 show in TV, with its biggest-ever advantage over the No. 2 show, “Desperate Housewives”). Fox expected the decline for “House,” since the show changed timeslots this year: In the fall, it aired at 8 p.m. Tuesdays to help launch “Fringe.”

“We needed to get some new dramas going and ‘House’ helped us do that,” Mr. Beckman said.
As for Fox’s other shows—almost all of which were down against last season—Mr. Beckman was unconcerned. “The ratings comparisons are a little hinky,” he said. “I look at other strategic goals.”

Prime example: Fox moved “Bones” to Thursday nights, potentially hurting its numbers. But the show has actually helped Fox compete effectively on the night for the first time in years; overall, “Bones” is actually up 6% versus last season.

TV 2.0: Fox parent News Corp. is a partner in Hulu, which exploded in popularity this year. Fox sparked lots of blog buzz by setting up an online memorial to a “House” character who killed himself, part of a regular effort to seed the Internet with viral promotional videos for its shows. The campaign for “Fringe” also relied heavily on new-media techniques.

Internal affairs: Kevin Reilly is still firmly in place as president of entertainment. But in the shock of the season, boss Peter Liguori was abruptly dismissed to make room for Fox film executive Peter Rice. Because Mr. Reilly is so firmly in control of development, however, the shakeup hasn’t resulted in any sort of chaos.

Self-evaluation: “In a way, our performance year-to-year was inevitably going to look worse,” Mr. Beckman said, noting the huge advantages the network had last year. “We demolished everyone last year in the ratings.”

Nonetheless, Fox once again improved its competitiveness in the fall quarter and has emerged with one, and possibly two, success stories to carry into next season. “It’s been a good year for us because we go into next season in a strong position,” Mr. Beckman said.

Overall grade: A-. Sure, “American Idol” still masks some trouble spots. But brick by brick, Fox is using the reality monster to build a diverse schedule that balances the risky (“Glee,” “24”) with shows that are conventional but well-done (“Bones”).


CBS

Data dive: The network might as well rebrand itself CBS Plus, since virtually all of its stats are in positive territory this year. It’s No. 1 in total viewers (11.8 million), up 13%, and No. 2 in adults 18-49 (3.2/8), up 7%. Among adults 25-54, CBS is tied with Fox for first, and it ranks first in adults 18-49 on Monday, Thursday and Friday nights. Among total viewers, CBS has the top-rated drama (“CSI”), comedy (“Two and a Half Men”) and newsmagazine (“60 Minutes”).

Freshman performance: “The Mentalist” is the most-watched new show of the season and “a genuine hit,” as one rival network executive put it. The rest of the network’s first-year class hasn’t been as distinguished, however. Romantic comedy “The Ex List” was gone within a month, while comedy “Worst Week” wasn’t a great fit on Mondays.
Drama “Eleventh Hour” hasn’t embarrassed itself, but given CBS’ high bar for success these days, its odds for renewal aren’t good. Spring tryout “Harper’s Island” had plenty of pre-launch buzz and is skewing very young, but the limited-run series has continued to lose audience every week and ranks third in its 10 p.m. Thursday timeslot.

Long-term assets: While other networks bemoan the sorry state of sitcoms, CBS is laughing out loud. All of its returning comedies are up from last year, with “How I Met Your Mother” gaining a massive 25% in adults 18-49. “The Big Bang Theory” also blossomed into a hit in its sophomore year.

“Those shows ticked up to the next level in terms of ratings and buzz,” said Kelly Kahl, the CBS senior executive VP who oversees scheduling for CBS and The CW.

Overall, 23 CBS shows added viewers, far more than any other network. Crime dramas such as the “CSI” franchise and the red-hot “NCIS” continued to do well, although the former show’s numbers have been trending downward since William Petersen’s departure. Reality veterans “The Amazing Race” and “Survivor,” while in decline, remain important players.

TV 2.0: Before there was “Harper’s Island,” there was “Harper’s Globe,” the interactive Web series. CBS also continues to explore ways of expanding its TV.com Web site to promote its shows and drive revenue via episodic streaming. The network’s PR department has quickly adapted to the Twitter revolution, announcing a renewal of “Amazing Race” via the microblogging service. And while it’s a summer show, few series on TV boast an online audience as loyal or engaged as those who obsess over “Big Brother.”

Internal affairs: All is stable. Nina Tassler still runs the network, with bosses Nancy Tellem and Leslie Moonves still in charge overall.

Self-evaluation: “Everything’s working,” Mr. Kahl said. “Comedy is doing well. Dramas are doing well. Not everything is going to be on an upswing. But if you have more things going up than going down, you’re in pretty good shape.”

Overall grade: A. CBS Corp. may have its issues, but the CBS Television Network couldn’t be doing better. The only red flag: Success is expensive, with aging hits harder to support in a bad advertising market.


ABC

Data dive: Down 3% in adults 18-49 (2.9/8) and viewers (8.9 million). Boasts four top 10 shows in adults 18-49 (“Desperate Housewives,” “Grey’s Anatomy,” “Lost” and “Dancing With the Stars”). Particularly strong in women 18-49, with seven of the top 11 shows in that demographic, and among the upscale audiences coveted by advertisers. Specifically, ABC is the No. 2 network with young adult viewers making over $100,000 per year, averaging a 3.35 rating.

Freshman performance: ABC opted not to rush its creators after last year’s strike, which meant it was able to premiere just one new drama in the fall. That show, “Life on Mars,” garnered good reviews and a cult following, but it won’t be back.

Fall game show “Opportunity Knocks” didn’t ring any doorbells with viewers, while a crush of midseason newcomers hasn’t provided ABC with any instant hits, either. Still, buzz on “Castle,” “The Unusuals” and “Better Off Ted” has been solid, so the network might be patient and bring back one or two of those shows. “Cupid” and comedy “In the Motherhood” are virtually dead. Midseason reality show “True Beauty” performed well behind “The Bachelor.”

Long-term assets: Reality rocked for ABC this season, with “The Bachelor” rising from its rose-covered grave to emerge once again as a pop culture phenom. “Dancing With the Stars” also remains in step with audiences, actually adding viewers this spring compared with a year ago.

ABC’s long-running tentpoles—”Desperate Housewives,” “Lost” and “Grey’s Anatomy”—are showing some signs of age, but they remain remarkably vibrant, particularly given their serialized nature. In fact, “Housewives” is currently the No. 1 show in the 18-49 demo. On Sundays, “Brothers and Sisters” is holding on nicely.

Creatively, “Grey’s Anatomy” struggled through the early part of the season and lost viewers as a result. “‘Grey’s’ had a hiccup,” admits ABC scheduling head Jeff Bader. “But in the second half of the season, it came back strong.”

TV 2.0: The ABC media player continued to draw big numbers, though there’s talk the network might soon supplement that viewing by joining NBC and Fox in Hulu. The network had the stars and producers of its shows tweeting long before Oprah and Ashton made it hip, while the network’s PR department had stars filming themselves on set in order to give bloggers exclusive content. Innovations such as “Lost Untangled” and “Ajiraairways.com” made ABC’s younger base want to check out the network’s Internet offerings.

Internal affairs: Steve McPherson expanded his power at the network by taking oversight of ABC Studios. An executive restructuring is in the works for the summer, but for now, all is calm.

Self-evaluation: “I think it was a pretty good season,” Mr. Bader said. “We didn’t have a normal fall launch … (but) our core series held up very well. We still have a lot of stable scripted series that do very well in upscale demographics.”

Overall grade: B-. Despite bad luck launching new shows, ABC still has plenty of shows advertisers want and an attractive blend of scripted and unscripted hits.


NBC

Data dive: While it will once again finish in fourth among all viewers (8 million), NBC is currently tied with ABC for third place among adults 18-49 (2.9 rating/8 share). It’s too soon to say whether the network will slip to fourth place when the season ends. NBC’s averages are boosted by strike comparisons and the fact that it had the Super Bowl this year.

Nonetheless, the network has cut the gap between it and first-place Fox from 1.4 ratings points last year to just seven-tenths of a point so far. NBC also can point to a younger audience composition (its median age has fallen from 48.1 to 47.2), and it’s neck-and-neck with ABC among upscale young adults.

Freshman performance: Nothing new worked for NBC between September and April, with high-profile shows such as “My Own Worst Enemy” and “Knight Rider” quickly failing (even if NBC left them on for several months). The network has its fingers crossed that it has turned the corner with this month’s premieres of “Southland” (although the police drama took a sharp 20% tumble in the ratings last week) and comedy “Parks and Recreation.”

“You can chalk those up in our column as a successful dual launch,” said Mitch Metcalf, head of scheduling for NBC. “‘Southland’ was able to take over from ‘ER’ and fit into the quality drama category, and ‘Parks’ fit nicely with our existing comedy lineup. It was a tough season for us in the fall, but we’re pleased with our new Thursday night.”

Long-term assets: “30 Rock” continued to build cultural buzz and ratings currency, jumping an impressive 23% versus last year in its new timeslot behind “The Office.” The show shed its “struggling” label once and for all. As for “The Office,” it’s the No. 2 comedy in adults 18-49, and No. 1 with viewers 18-34.

On the reality front, “The Biggest Loser” had its best cycle this spring since its premiere. Two-hour episodes on Tuesday have made the show a force, even opposite “American Idol.”

The news hasn’t been so good for NBC’s dramas. “Heroes” is down nearly 30% on Mondays, dragging down averages for lead-in “Chuck” and lead-out “Medium.” “Law & Order: SVU,” “Life” and “Friday Night Lights” also declined. Reality-wise, “The Apprentice” is down compared with last year, while “Deal or No Deal” burned out in the fall.

TV 2.0: In addition to its Hulu connections, NBC continues to make driving viewers to the Internet a priority via specialized content for shows such as “The Office,” “Heroes” and “30 Rock.” The network’s “Saturday Night Live” remained a viral force thanks to Tina Fey’s performance as Sarah Palin and SNL Digital Shorts such as “I’m on a Boat.”

Internal affairs: De facto NBC entertainment boss Teri Weinberg was forced out last winter, along with NBC studio chief Katherine Pope. Company veteran Angela Bromstad returned to replace both of them. She reports to NBC Entertainment Co-Chairmen Marc Graboff and Ben Silverman.

Self-evaluation: “The real lesson learned for us this season is, come up with nights that are really cohesive in terms of demos and genres,” Mr. Metcalf said. “You have to be hyper-aware of what your plan is on every night. You can’t take a scattershot approach.”

Overall grade: C-. Despite some glimmers of hope on Thursday, NBC didn’t get what it so desperately needs: a true breakout hit.


THE CW

Data dive: Looking at the network’s core programming block of Monday-Thursday, The CW is up 8% in adults 18-34 (1/3/4) and ahead by 6% in women 18-34 (1.7/5), its target demographic. Among all adults 18-34, on every night it programs, The CW is averaging a 1.0/3, down 9%. The decision to dump wrestling has hurt the network’s overall numbers.

Freshman series: The network poured all its energies into launching the new “90210,” and the effort paid off with a huge debut. Since then the show has faded a bit, but it has improved the network’s Tuesday ratings by 47% in adults 18-34 and has already been renewed. Fellow fall newcomer “Privileged” didn’t fare as well, but it has fans at the network. Reality show “13: Fear Is Real” was dead on arrival, as was a Sunday night lineup leased by Media Rights Capital.

Long-term assets: “Gossip Girl” exploded in season two, gaining 32% in women 18-34. “One Tree Hill,” in its sixth season, managed a 15% uptick in the same demographic, while Thursday player “Supernatural” gained 8%. “Smallville” and “America’s Next Top Model” are hanging in there, but “Reaper” and “Everybody Hates Chris” were down notably in women 18-34.

Internal affairs: Dawn Ostroff still oversees the entertainment division, with input from co-owners CBS Corp. and Warner Bros.

Self-evaluation: “The real goal of the year for CW was launching franchises, and we did that with ‘90210,’” Mr. Kahl said. “We knew by getting rid of wrestling, it was going to be tough to see plus signs. But it didn’t fit the brand.”

Overall grade: B-. The CW is surviving, which, given the odds against it, is impressive.

(Updated "Internal affairs" section of NBC.)