Monday, June 18, 2012

The Separate Realms: Sports & Specials

The thing about big event TV is that it gets people interested in TV ratings who don't typically pay that much attention. For awhile, that kind of irked me. People will lose their lunch about a sporting event dropping by 5% year-to-year, but if only they knew that the vast majority of regular series are down more than that every year!

In the end, though, it may be for the best. Sports and specials really are separate realms compared to series programming, realms that are often much more conducive to live viewing than a scripted series and thus should be judged differently.

Throw in every single sports telecast and every single special telecast and here's how they stack up compared to the original series "league average":

Year Sports A18-49+ Specials A18-49+
2006-07 132 92
2007-08 149 84
2008-09 162 91
2009-10 200 107
2010-11 218 95
2011-12 222 101

Every single year of the last five, sports have gotten stronger relative to series (though just barely this year). But the specials are a little less conclusive.


The best things we can track here are the "regular" primetime sports; in other words, dilute the impact of a matchup by including a large combination of games. There are only two of those:

Year Sunday Night Football Saturday Night Football
2006-07 170 72
2007-08 184 70
2008-09 204 91
2009-10 271 77
2010-11 314 78
2011-12 335 88

A big part of why the sports A18-49+ is up so steeply for sports is because of NBC's Sunday Night Football, which has nearly doubled in strength relative to series over the last half decade. In its first year on NBC, it was a big hit along the lines of CSI (185) or Heroes (165) or Lost (162). Now, it's well beyond what I'd consider a megahit, about 50% ahead of American Idol and likely stronger in the relative landscape than Idol was even at its height.

I thought that using championship series might not be that helpful since they're so dependent on matchups and series length. But when I lined them up, the results here were pretty obvious too:

Year Super Bowl NBA Finals World Series BCS Championship NCAA BB Championship
2006-07 941 100 128 283 192
2007-08 1142 186 171 250 222
2008-09 1230 196 158 318 211
2009-10 1382 262 205 376 294
2010-11 1573 282 158 398* 280
2011-12 1714 296** 204 368* 322

*- The BCS moved to cable starting in 2011

**- Just the Games 1-2 average

While the results are not totally predictable for every sport in every single year, the overall trajectory is pretty clear and consistent; they're all getting much stronger relative to entertainment series from a Live + SD standpoint. I'm writing this not to examine which individual sports are doing better than others (that's coming next week!), just to illustrate that sports are clearly operating on a completely different playing field. The 5-10% yearly declines for series are not at all indicative of any sports and shouldn't be the standard. And even if there were some sport declining by 5-10% every year (I'm sure there's one somewhere), that's more on that sport itself than on DVRs or second screens or any of that stuff. For the most part, sports are, at the very least, much less affected.


It struck me after doing my investigation here that perhaps I ought to start denoting two separate types of specials. There's one type that's more sports-esque and one type that's more series-esque or perhaps even more rerun-esque.

The Sports-esque Specials: Awards Shows

Though the awards shows are for the most part down in raw numbers across the last five years (with the Grammys a notable exception), they are all declining at a slower rate than series in general:

Year Oscar Grammys CMA Awards Golden Globes People's Choice
2006-07 377 222 144 174 94
2007-08 326 198 164 n/a n/a
2008-09 405 248 168 164 101
2009-10 476 355 190 197 122
2010-11 465 394 185 205 106
2011-12 495 597 203 212 106

The Series-esque Specials: Holiday Specials

Then there are those classic holiday specials that the networks keep trotting out each year. Many of them are still able to capture something of an event feel and certainly do better than virtually any repeats would, but... they're also (mostly) declining at about the rate of original series. Sometimes a little more (Peanuts specials), sometimes a little less (Rudolph).

Year Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving A Charlie Brown Christmas Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer Grinch
2006-07 n/a 83 128 120 104
2007-08 116 100 140 155 207*
2008-09 114 114 114 141 127
2009-10 91 72 132 136 100
2010-11 77 87 102 154 87
2011-12 97 76 119 169 106

*- Got a 6.8 demo thanks to a massive lead-in from original Shrek the Halls (7.1)

The Separate Standards

All of this basically means that it seems fine to judge sports and awards shows "normally" or close to it. In other words, if a sport/award show drops by a small amount, it really is because of a loss of interest and not because of some larger macro reason. A 5% drop in Live+SD ratings for a scripted series is usually a pretty good season. With a sport/awards show, a 5% drop is... at least for now, pretty much just a genuine 5% drop. Not too thrilling, but it's nice to know!


Spot said...

You are mixing apples and oranges a bit here. You're comparing all sports (broadcast or cable) with scripted broadcast-only programming.
Cable, five years ago: only HBO and Showtime, TNT and USA had scripted originals. OK, SyFy too. Today, FX and AMC are major players in scripted. Bet, ABC Family, A&E, TBS all have multiple series, even TV Land has their comedies. Starz has Spartacus, IFC: Portlandia, MTV airs Teen Wolf, Direct TV: Damages, Netflix launched Lilyhammer (and has many more in development, Hulu and Amazon too). Hell, even VH1 is shooting something scripted (Bounce).

Point being: fragmentation in drama series, realities and even comedies is huge nowadays. Given choice, people are watching less broadcast and their ratings go down. While there is "only so many" sports, they only sometimes move to another network or cable. Major sport leagues were able not to allow other sport leagues to get significant share of market. If soccer, UFC, Canadian football ... whatever ... were able to inflict fragmentation, then sport would suffer ratings decline too. But they were not able.

If we would calculate total viewers (2+ or 18-49, doesn't matter) for both cable and broadcast, I'm pretty sure total of scripted programs is not losing ground to sports over last 5 years. It's intuitively clear from HUT level being stable + no steep increase of sports ratings (save for the SNF, if I read your text well).
True is that those major sport events are having huge ratings on big 4 + ESPN, and thus command higher prices - surely there is some bonus advertisers are paying for relatively huge reach. 7 shows with 1.0 rating always earn less than one show with 7.0 ratings (even not counting that they take 6 more slots).
So, though I don't like your method of average ratings - neither my method (basically adding up all scripted GRPs in one season versus all sport GRPs) wouldn't be good. Truth is somewhere in between, as always.

Spot said...

Are your 18-49+ averages for the holiday specials including multiple airings of the same rerun? I know ABC is especially fond of airing its Charlie Brown specials more than once...

And do you have numbers for other types of specials? I'm thinking The Ten Commandments' annual airing on ABC, Dick Clark's New Year's Rockin' Eve, NBC's July 4th fireworks, etc? I think it'd be interesting to see if those live specials behave more sports-esque or series-esque.

Spot said...

The whole point of the post is that it's apples and oranges. I was not striving for something quite as big picture as you; my thesis was not "sports are doing better than scripted" as a whole. It was more about how to evaluate individual programs/events. In fact, the whole point of the A18-49+ project is more about giving a pass to the individual scripted programs, not about disparaging them. The idea is that some of those series declines are a relatively inevitable fragmentation/technologies thing. I just don't get into the reasons so much because I don't have a lot of tangible value to add there.

Spot said...

Yes, I made sure it was the first airing each year for the holiday specials. Perhaps I need to denote the multiple airings differently to make that part easier in the future.

Good call on New Year's Rockin' Eve. Forgot that one. It definitely feels like it would be more conducive to live viewing, and even throwing out this year, which was an anomaly, it is more sports-esque: 75 -> 94 -> 94 -> 97 -> 110 -> 174

The movies are a little less conclusive and closer to the series path, but perhaps suggest (along with Rudolph) that the struggles for the Peanuts specials are more about Peanuts than about an overall trend.

Ten Commandments: 59 -> 64 -> 57 -> 50 -> 63 -> 63
It's a Wonderful Life (early Dec): 40 -> 52 -> 44 -> 39 -> 47 -> 47
It's a Wonderful Life (Xmas Eve): 45 -> 46 -> 54 -> 57 -> 55 -> 63

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