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:
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:
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
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.)