Primetime upfront issues: network erosion and mid-season repeats


Media analysts Steve Sternberg and Shari Anne Brill have teamed this year on the next cycle of Baseline Research’s (a NY Times company) Primetime TV Insight Reports. The first report, the 2011 Upfront Edition, details everything from network erosion and mid-season repeats, to programming trends to a network-by-network analysis. Today we look at Q4 2010 and Q1 2011 ratings data, network erosion and mid-season repeats. From the report:

It is no secret that the broadcast networks have problems. Every year their audience shrinks a little more, siphoned off by an increasing array of cable channels that are investing more in both original and acquired programming (ironically many of the broadcast networks’ own former hits).

At the same time, DVR penetration continues to inch upward. Unlike VCRs, which never lived up to the promise (or threat) of allowing viewers to program their own networks to watch at their leisure, DVRs are doing just that – and making commercial avoidance easier than ever. For many of the most popular scripted series, the percentage of live viewing is diminishing each season (and the bulk of time-shifted viewing includes fast-forwarding through commercials).

Traditional television is no longer necessarily the first screen for younger viewers, and the broadcast networks continue to age. Not long ago, CBS was by far the oldest network, with a median age just over 50. But ABC and NBC have gradually gotten older, and are roughly 50 themselves (while CBS is in the mid-50s). Even FOX now has a median age of about 45. CW is currently the only broadcast network with an average median age under 40.

Clearly the broadcast networks are challenged to develop scripted programming that will bring back some of their disenfranchised viewers. But just when the networks need to give shows time to build an audience, they
often wield the cancellation axe too quickly – particularly for shows they don’t own. With all the viewing options available today, it often takes a full season or more for viewers to even become aware of a new show, much less start watching it. The one thing broadcast networks can do to offset some of this, namely cross-promoting one another’s series (as cable networks have successfully done for years) they stubbornly refuse to do – under the anachronistic notion that their only competitors are themselves, rather than everything else.

All is not gloom and doom, however. The television audience is continuing to splinter, but viewers are not leaving the medium altogether. Among adults 18-49 and 25-54, the five broadcast networks combined are down by only about half a rating point from last season.

Before discussing the current state of the various networks and their plans for next season, there are some points worth noting. It seems to us the broadcast networks have reached the point where the traditional regular season (mid-September–May) is really a tale of two seasons, maybe even three.

* FOX is often in third or fourth place during the fall. Then American Idol returns in January, airing two nights a week, and (even without Simon) enables the network to surge into first place for the remainder of the season.

* NFL Football remains the highest rated sport on television, and iscoming off one of its strongest seasons in years. As a result, despite a weak regular-series lineup, NBC’s Sunday Night Football allows the network to be competitive during the fall. Come January, however, NBC tends to load up on reality series and slips in the ratings.

* ABC’s high-rated two-night reality hit, Dancing With the Stars, ends its run in December and generally returns in late March. Some of ABC’s highest rated regular series, most notably, Desperate Housewives and Grey’s Anatomy, are serialized dramas, which do not repeat well (and decline in the rerun heavy January and March).

So ABC tends to be strong in the 4th Quarter, weaker in the 1st Quarter, and then rebounds in April/May.

* CBS has traditionally not relied on seasonal series or reality as much as the other networks. For several years, it basically just had Survivor and Amazing Race during the regular season (both of which still perform fairly well). Last year it added Undercover Boss, which quickly became one of the highest rated shows on the air. CBS’s greater reliance on scripted series has served the network well, allowing it to finish either first or second among key demos throughout the year, without experiencing the same type of seasonal fluctuations as the other networks.

* CW tends to have extensive repeats in the 1st Quarter, which results in severe ratings declines from the fall. While lagging behind among the broader demos, CW is often competitive among the under-25 crowd, especially women – its series usually have the highest concentration of women 18-34 on television.

* There are typically only a few reality or game shows on in the fall – the broadcast networks like to talk about scripted programming during their upfront presentations to advertisers (which focus primarily on their fall schedules). Come mid-season, however, there are always a slew of reality/game shows joining (or re-joining) the network schedules. This year is no exception, as we have:

* ABC’s Skating With the Stars, The Bachelor, Wipeout, and Shark Tank (Take the Money and Run is slated for April).
* CBS’s Live to Dance.
* NBC’s The Sing Off, Minute to Win It, School Pride, Who Do You Think You Are, The Apprentice, and America’s Next Great Restaurant.
* FOX’s American Idol, Million Dollar Money Drop, and Kitchen Nightmares.
* CW’s Shedding for the Wedding.

Network Erosion and Mid-Season Repeats
The broadcast networks usually have anywhere from 17–24 episodes comprising a full season of the typical primetime series. Since the “official” season is from mid-September – May, this obviously requires a fair amount of repeats. The original telecast is often a break even proposition, so broadcast networks need repeats to profit from the programming.

The sweeps months of November, February, and May are not as important as they once were, but they still tend to have mostly original programming, which means December, January, March, and April have heavier repeat loads.

Let’s take a look at three representative series on each broadcast network to see how repeats have differing affects on the audience levels of each. Note that comedies repeat better than dramas, and procedural dramas repeat better than serialized dramas.

Who’s in First (and does it really matter anymore)?

The network races are so close among so many demos that while first-place has continued interest on Wall Street and in the press, it doesn’t really mean much to advertisers anymore. Any network can win a four-week sweeps period, and it is easier than ever to go from fourth to first place in a single season, and vice-versa.

Let’s say FOX finishes the season in first place among adults 18-49 because American Idol accounts for nearly 15 percent of its schedule (and 30 percent of its ratings). CBS finishes just a couple of tenths of a rating point
behind (and is in first place among adults 25-54 and 35+), with a much more stable schedule and many more successful programs. ABC finishes just a couple of tenths of a point behind the leader among adults 18-34, 18-49, and 25-54, but leads among women in those age groups (and is the only network to gain viewers versus last season).

Which network would be in the best situation? And what if the standings change when looking at just regularly scheduled series, as opposed to all telecasts? Or looking at February through May versus the full season? Or
dare we say, when looking at Live versus C3 versus Live + 7 Day ratings. With only a share point or two separating first and third or first and fourth place among several key demos, bottom-line network averages are less relevant than ever. Which network has the most solid programming for a particular target audience, which has the most stable schedule of regular series, which network is on the rise? These questions have more relevance than who is in first place at the moment.

Brill can be reached at [email protected]. She tells RBR-TVBR the entire report series can be ordered here