Once Upon a Time opened its run with a great premiere, attracting 12.93 million viewers and a 4.0 demo rating on 10/23/11. It held that audience remarkably well in the first few weeks, dropping to 3.9 in week two and 3.8 in three and four, but beyond that it was mostly in the low-3's. This still marked a significant success, and one that stole the Sunday spotlight from ABC's fast-fading Sunday centerpiece Desperate Housewives. After a brief spike back to 3.9 to open season two, it was right back in the low 3's for the first half of season two.
It's probably an oversimplification to blame all of Once Upon a Time's declines in seasons two and three on just three weeks. At least some of it, maybe most of it, would've eventually happened either way. But it sure looks like just three weeks are to blame when looking at the ratings. Once returned to its usual 3.1 after the 2012-13 holiday break, but then had to air against a slew of big Sunday events. In just three episodes, Once's 3.1 had become a 2.2, and the show couldn't meaningfully recover; it was stuck in the low-2's for most of the next year and a half. This led to horrible year-to-year comparisons late in season two and early in season three.
A Frozen Resurgence
It's usually all downhill after the first couple seasons for this kind of show, but Once Upon a Time has the unique ability to reinvent itself by bringing in fresh iconic characters. And the show struck gold to an unbelievable degree with the choice for the first half of season four. With characters from Disney's hit animated film Frozen, Once Upon a Time had a massive surge back to 3.5 for the season four premiere, marking the biggest historical-adjusted rating in series history and a 35% climb vs. the previous fall premiere. That rating proved unsustainable, and the show bled pretty rapidly across the rest of the fall, but most fall 2014 points were still up double digits year-to-year.
Ultimately, Frozen was just a golden choice for one half of a season that had little long-term effect. The second half of season four hit new lows and was down almost 20% year-to-year. And the fall 2015 comparisons vs. last year's Frozen were even uglier. But it has proven that this show can be meaningfully reinvigorated, which not many serialized dramas can say. Even as it's declined into much more marginal territory in season five, it can still cling to the hope of finding its next Frozen.
Adults 18-49 info by season:
Historical-adjusted ratings by season:
The War of 18-49 chronicles the ratings history of veteran primetime series. For more, see the Index.