Monday, June 2, 2014

A18-49+ Update: The Network Race in 2013-14

We last examined the network race about three months ago, when I was putting up a pre-emptive strike against what I saw as the likely media narrative come May: "NBC only won because of the Olympics!"

However, with the season in the books, NBC was able to make the claim that they were #1 even without the Olympics! I doubt they account for the fact that they'd have had two and a half very low-rated (AKA without The Voice) weeks in its place, and I don't know whether that would've made the difference. But either way, the "#1 without Olympics" title got NBC the recognition it had been due for a year or two. The problem is that it probably got it too much recognition. So I have to make a strategic shift in this post, from "NBC is underrated" guy to "NBC is overrated" guy. Here's a look at how the 2013-14 network race shaped up.

Overall Ratings vs. Series Ratings

As we've said here many times, the media coverage of the network race is too beholden to overall ratings averages, which are increasingly polluted by noisy sports ratings. My opposition to this is not because one single hit is carrying the network. If that single hit is a massive profit center, the network should get credit. Maybe that heavy reliance on one show suggests a certain vulnerability projecting forward (hello Fox), but the numbers still mean a lot of profit right now.

The problem with sports ratings is that they're not an apples-to-apples indicator of profits. NBC's Sunday Night Football may pull over five times the ad revenue NBC would get from entertainment series, but it also costs at least five times as much (roughly $50 million per game). Whether football and the Olympics are slightly profitable or slightly unprofitable is of some symbolic importance, but it doesn't really matter that much to this point. They're relatively close to breakeven, and not even in the same profitability stratosphere as a scripted lineup with the same ratings would be. So they shouldn't be credited the same way per ratings point.

The Olympics may not have been the difference between #1 and not, but the Olympics PLUS Sunday Night Football definitely were. Here's an attempt to break it apart:

Overall 87 98 122 106
Original Series 96 106 103 94
Everything Else 71 82 147 129
Scripted Originals 99 110 82 86
Comedies 94 145 68 84
Dramas 101 97 86 87
Unscripted Originals 92 93 129 106
Reality 102 108 149 106
News 72 74 64 n/a

The "Overall" row essentially presents the race that the media analyzes: NBC a runaway #1, Fox #2, CBS #3 and ABC #4. Fox has a much larger lead on CBS in these same-day numbers than in the official L+7's, probably because scripted-driven CBS gets a lot more help from DVR than Super Bowl-driven Fox, but this is still generally what you see depicted.

All of this overall vs. series breakdown is important because the rankings change drastically once we get down to the "better" numbers (Original Series). CBS leaps from #3 to #1. ABC goes from deep in the cellar to #3. And the two most sports-driven networks are down: NBC is no longer "the #1 network," and Fox goes from #2 to #4.

As I said, I don't really believe in throwing out The Voice. It's surely a big money-maker, and that should be acknowledged. But if you want a decent representation of a Voice-less NBC, see the "Scripted Originals," in which NBC is actually still number four. They've made a decent amount of progress here (82 is their best number in five years), but it still indicates a network lacking in depth.

Network Evolution Within This Season

One of the fascinating things about the network race this season is that it changed a good bit from start to finish. To revisit the chart from last month and tack on the final numbers:

Week Ending ABC CBS NBC Fox CW
1 9/29/2013 98 96 117 88 12
5 10/27/2013 95 99 112 93 33
9 11/24/2013 95 102 110 90 33
13 12/22/2013 93 103 112 88 34
17 1/19/2014 92 105 107 95 34
21 2/16/2014 91 106 103 101 34
25 3/16/2014 93 105 104 99 34
29 4/13/2014 94 106 103 95 34
35 5/21/2014 96 106 103 94 34

2012-13 Final 93 109 93 106 30

Fox went into the winter holidays with an 88 average. Considering they programmed way too much The X Factor and it blew up in their face, it actually wasn't that bad a fall. Sleepy Hollow did great, Dads was at least enough above water to stay on the schedule, and Brooklyn Nine-Nine was a noticeable improvement on last year's Ben and Kate. 88 is actually the kind of number Fox would usually take into the winter even in their prime years, if not better; in fact, in 2006-07 (the first year of their prime), they averaged just a 72 at the end of 2006! Throw in the return of Idol and post-football episodes of The Following, New Girl and Brooklyn, and Fox worked their way to above average (101) in mid-February, staying there through early March.

Starting in March, though, almost literally everything went wrong. Idol didn't recover from a big drop against the Olympics. The Following severely disappointed in season two, while Bones finally seemed to suffer from scheduling jerk-around (maybe multiple moves within one season is what it took). Glee bombed hard in its move to Tuesday, assisting in the further tanking of New Girl. Rake was a mega-bomb. And Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey forced Fox to move its second-tier animation into the 7:00 hour. It all added up to the network shedding seven points in about two months while Idol was on the air. They dropped into a tie with ABC for 3rd in week 30, then behind them in week 32. The decent return of 24 and a nice finale spike for Idol pretty much stopped the bleeding, but that was about it. This all added up to the network adding just six points from the end of 2013 (88) through the end of May sweeps (94), historically the time when Fox has completely overwhelmed the landscape. To return to the 2006-07 example: in that year, they added fifty-one points over the same period, end of 2006 (72) through end of May sweeps (123).

Opposite the Fox meltdown, there was a quietly positive story in the closing months of the season. ABC's surge was practically unreported until the network won May sweeps (even without an episode of Scandal), and even then it was a decidedly un-sexy story that many struggled to explain. I say that because most stories about network shifts need to point to some new show, and usually rightfully so. Resurrection's huge start sort of provided that, but it declined a ton and was ultimately just a bit player in the May sweeps win. ABC's surge was mostly a story of existing series steadying the ship. Dancing with the Stars actually inched up year-to-year in the spring, the Wednesday comedies closed their year-to-year deficits noticeably, and the split-season treatment worked wonders for the Thursday/Sunday dramas in the spring. Once Upon a Time's behavior was particularly positive; it went from 30%+ year-to-year losses in the fall to virtually even for much of the spring.

Network Evolution in Recent Seasons

2011-12 96 115 77 119 29
2012-13 93 109 93 106 30
2013-14 96 106 103 94 34

Another problem in coverage of the network race: too much weight is put on rankings. You always get the sense from the media around upfront time that the first place network must be run by infallible geniuses, the fourth by huge morons. Assuming ABC is legitimately the fourth place network (not that big a stretch), here's the only barely exaggerated ABC analysis that results: "Though ABC has some solid players like Dancing with the Stars, and The Bachelor, and Castle, and Agents of SHIELD, and The Middle, and Modern Family, and Grey's Anatomy, and Scandal, and Shark Tank, and Once Upon a Time, and Resurrection, they must have had a disastrous year because fourth place!!!"

This hasn't mattered much in many recent years, because the top network was indeed very dominant  (Fox) and the fourth-place network indeed very much a dumpster fire (NBC). But this year represented a very tight four-way convergence. The difference between first and fourth this year (12 points) was much smaller than the difference between first and second during Fox's prime. CBS at 106 is one of the weakest first-place networks in the last eleven years, while Fox at 94 is one of the strongest fourth-place networks. Whether you think ABC or Fox is the "real" fourth-place network, there's really no comparison with NBC's huge mess in the immediate pre-Voice years (at least not yet).

Will another runaway dominant network emerge from this four-way convergence, the way Fox did in the mid-aughts? Nobody seems as well-positioned as Fox in 2005. The best candidate based on year-to-year trend is NBC, which gained another ten points to move into a solid second place. However, a great deal of their success is The Voice-driven, and that show didn't have a particularly good spring season. When the networks last converged at very similar ratings in 2004-05, Fox still had another six years of American Idol at its peak to look forward to. The Voice seems farther along in the life cycle with twice-a-year shots; maybe it's already peaked. CBS remains #1, but it continues to move downward, and it feels like it missed its shot at true dominance when it had all those massive comedies back in 2011-12. If someone is gonna seize control of the big four race in the coming years, it feels like it'll require something that we can't see coming right now.

Why is Kevin Reilly gone? Fox dropped 20%+ in raw A18-49 entertainment average for a second straight season, which translates to a double-digit drop in the relative numbers above. No other big four network has dropped 20% in a season in the whole A18-49+ era. (The CW did it a couple times, but one of those was the writers' strike season.) Fox was so strong in their prime that drops were bound to happen eventually, but this has been a particularly ugly transition period. And considering how badly they ended the season, there may be even more to come.

And the CW was actually up in raw A18-49 entertainment average, just the third time a network has pulled that off in the last five years. (Joining CBS 2011-12 and NBC 2012-13.) The network's had a very nice couple of years as they've tried to broaden their audience, but they've still only recovered about half the 18-49 damage done in the previous two years when America's Next Top Model fell apart.

Here's the now updated A18-49+ Networks post. (And the next A18-49+ post will do a deeper version of the networks post, taking the overall/scripted/unscripted numbers in section one across all seasons.)


Spot said...

I've been saying for a while that NBC is resembling a weaker version of imperial-era FOX, racking up the ratings points with sports and singing whilst quietly building a drama framework elsewhere. NBC's comedies are still a dumpster fire of such huge proportions that there was a *ratings* case for #sixseasonsandamovie, but FOX live-action comedy didn't exactly contribute to their dominant late-oughts either. And post-imperial FOX may have essentially nothing outside of football worth anything ratings-wise - especially if their desperate straight-to-series drama orders are anything like NBC's from a few years back and Utopia is the disaster that the behind-the-scenes gossip implies it is. (I'm pretty sure at least one of those will come to pass, too. Probably the Utopia crash.)

ABC's problem, meanwhile, is that when they have struck out, they've struck out *spectacularly*. The trail of destruction in the Tuesday 10pm slot is staggering to behold, in addition to which you can add Wonderland in the Thursday zero hour (what if Grey's loses its pulse there?!?) and The Assets, which managed to 'top' the lot for ratings ineptitude. But they're way clear of anyone bar CBS in scripted originals *with* those megabombs, and with CBS messing with success for TNF and apparently facing a third consecutive year where half of their pilot season came up empty (comedies in 2012, dramas in 2013, comedies in 2014), I think ABC might even win next season in scripted shows. It's clearly reliant on the whole of the Shonda block working from top to bottom, and on CBS regressing, but again, I'd be surprised to see *neither* of those things happening.

Spot said...

2014-15 Predictions:

CBS- 104
FOX- 101
NBC- 100
ABC- 95

I think it could easily go any of four ways next year.

Spot said...

FOX has nothing really going for them. Family Guy was the only full season show they had to never fall below a 2 this season. In contrast CBS has HIMYM, 2 Broke Girls, Survivor (Minus Reunions), Criminal Minds, The Big Bang Theory, NCIS, and NCIS: LA. NBC has The Voice, Voice Results, and The Blacklist. ABC has Modern Family, Grey's Anatomy, and Scandal.
In conclusion, total hours each network has always over a 2
CBS: 5.5
NBC: 4.0
ABC: 2.0
FOX: .5

Spot said...

I agree with anyone but FOX. No Superbowl this year. No Championship game. CBS gets Championship game and NBC gets Superbowl. Football is pushing it for like CBS, NBC, ABC, FOX for me

Spot said...

Is the parity because almost every show rates between 1.5 and 2.5 ?
What's a realistic estimate of the number of people outside the entertainment industry that actually care about network ratings rankings? A thousand?

Spot said...

I agree on the last point, which is why I only write at length on this stuff like 2-3 times per year. (And much of that is motivated by the flaws in other coverage.) I think there's some passing interest in the bigger picture, but I can't imagine anyone really cares who wins on a daily/weekly basis.

Spot said...

NBC was good to have a good year on the surface because of sports. And even when you dig deeper into their scripted numbers, that fourth-place ranking obscures some advancement: The Blacklist sustained its strength throughout the season, Chicago Fire took a big step up thanks to its post-Voice Fall exposure, and SVU got a second wind in one of the toughest timeslots in the week. Yes, Thursday is still a disaster and their efforts on Sundays post-football didn't take off. Still, it's better than expected.

Fox, on the other hand...yikes. Sleepy Hollow has to feel really good getting a second season and exiting the canvas in January before the network took this brutal turn. It's younger-skewing shows just can't help getting whammied by DST, Idol didn't stop the bleeding, the network went off the map on Fridays in the second-half of the season, and the second-tier cartoons got shoved to a punishing hour for Seth McFarland's passion project. It's not impossible for a network up against a wall to have a breakout season (see: ABC's dream 2004-2005 season) but it doesn't feel like that'll happen for Fox this time.

CBS continues to be the tortoise to the Big Three's hares in the season-long race, but that dynamic figures to change somewhat next season with Thursday Night Football. The Big Bang Theory will at least super-charge the 8:00 hour on Mondays, then as the season goes on there will be weeks when the Eye has Thursdays to itself since football means there's 5 less weeks of reruns.

It's an odd statement to make, but ABC took advantage of the Winter Olympics to try its split-season scheduling and essentially played dead against the event. It definitely worked, and they probably could have gained another point had Scandal not had an abbreviated season. Now they just need to better block schedule its sitcoms to create three clear block runs instead of sprinkling new eps post-February.

Had The CW lost any ground this season, I would have argued to start turning off the lights. But Tuesday was an unqualified success on a year-to-year basis, and none of its new shows were out-and-out megabombs a la Cult or Emily Owens MD.

Spot said...

I agree that excluding The Voice isn't a reasonable way to measure NBC's strength as a whole. but it still provides a good assessment of Bob Greenblatt's tenure as network head (since he inherited The Voice, which was developed under the previous administration).

And, well, not great Bob.

Spot said...

What? This Spot's post is about "Series ratings". It excludes sports and (I think) specials. Exactly for the reason to remove effect of not-regularly-scheduled and/or very-expensive program distorting overall picture of networks' health.

Spot said...

Next season predictions: CBS 108 ; NBC 98; ABC 97; Fox 93 ; CW 32.

NBC is most interesting. Their fall schedule is a mess. They'll improve only Thu 8 PM (but that's a lateral move, Tuesday should be about equally weaker with those low-rated comedies now there), and Fri 10 PM (irrelevant for A18-49+, but Constantine is much more expensive than Dracula was). Other returning series should go down for at least average league drop, because NBC left them without The Voice / The Blacklist help, and decided to support DOA shows instead. Based on that, I'd expect them to give back all they gained this season... but I see a gleam of hope in midseason. Not Thursday. Their revamped Thursday will go up something like 50% (to 1.5 in midseason 2015), but almost same amount they'll lose at Monday (and could lose even entire that half of point in case State of Affairs disappoints). But A. D. fueled Sunday should cut loses to half, I really can see them doing good at Sun.

ABC - Black-ish should improve on Super Fun Night, and new Shonda show should improve a lot on OUATW. But I cannot see any other gains. In fact, I see all returning shows down for 10+% (maybe excluding Scandal and Goldbergs, but especially including Grey's), and other newbies doesn't look great, not at all. I think ABC will maintain roughly the same A18-49+. Which is pathetic, being down for average league drop compared to season 2013-14 when they had one of the weakest individual network rookie classes in the history of broadcast.

CBS is similar to ABC, there's little doubt Mon 10 PM and Wed 10 PM will improve by more than a half of rating point. But that's it. I don't see any of those aging shows suddenly going up, and, except for Stalker, I can't see any new show being game changer (but I'll allow some could turn out to be solid players in a way POI or Elementary are). With many timeslots down in A18-49 next season, but some flat, and two mentioned slots significantly improved, I can see them down high single digits in A18-49, which would actually mean they're up in A18-49+.

Fox - I have no idea, Fox is a wild card with bunch of new shows. Idol will drop again, sure, only question is if it will be at current pace (read: collapsing), or slower. Therefore it's hard to see them going up. But I think it could be offset by multiple new shows improving their timeslots. Not because I have high hopes for those newbies, but because Fox did awful in so many timeslots this season. In other words, I'm not saying they'll dig gold somewhere, I'm merely saying it goes against probability they'll dig turd everywhere again.

CW - Flash should do good, but their other new shows look underwhelming, plus most of returning shows had big ratings drop in spring, plus Originals are taking one for the team with move to Monday... another up year seems mission impossible.

Spot said...

Bob only deserves credit for Blacklist and the Chicago franchise.

NBC thursdays were one of the only days where they used to be competitve, now it's laughable. NBC has had zero comedies that can be called at least solid since 2010.

He needs to build depth otherwise we'll see a repeat of FOX's current situation. Early summer ratings are at least a signal that casual viewers are starting to come back to the network which is good and proves that Voice has repeat the Idol effect of bringing the other shows up.

Spot said...

By the way, next year predictions:

CBS- 103
NBC- 100
ABC- 97

FOX - 92
CW - 32

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