Wednesday, February 14, 2018

A Look Inside the League Average

If you've been following the projections for what we call the "league average," you know there's been a significant round of upward movement in the numbers over the course of this winter. What's the cause of that, and is there any end in sight? It's time for a deep dive!

If you look at the year-to-year trends for each week in the Climate Center, you can get a sense of why the projection keeps going up; the league average decline since the start of 2018 has consistently been in single digits. A sustained period at that level will really take a big chunk out of the mid-teens declines we saw in the fall.

Another way of looking at it is that the season-to-date league average (in other words, everything that has happened so far) has stayed almost exactly the same, right on the border between 1.15 and 1.16, or even ticked up a couple thousandths since the start of the new year. Looking at the similar period in early 2017, the league average dropped about 3%: from 1.36 to 1.32 from January 1 to February 12.

This 2018 trend isn't totally unprecedented, because American Idol used to be such a mammoth that it would singlehandedly drive up the average in this period. But you pretty much have to go all the way back to the prime years of Idol to find the last time when the season-to-date league average was steady or growing in January and early February.

But I wanted to really drill down into why those numbers have been so favorable. So rather than just look at it by week, I came up with these tables which illustrate the net change in league average projection every day. In other words, did this day help or hurt the league average decline this season? It's not a perfect metric because the projection becomes harder to change as the season goes on, but I think it's fairly easy to understand at least. So let's start with the state of play in the fall.



A few things become really clear when looking at it this way. Mondays and Thursdays were good for the projection, housing the biggest additions of the fall in The Good Doctor, Will and Grace and later Young Sheldon. Tuesdays and Sundays were a little murkier, though perhaps leaning a shade positive in total.

The consistent drags on the league average were Wednesday and Friday. On Wednesday, Empire continued its sharp declines and the ABC comedies and Designated Survivor also looked ugly. Friday's biggest offense was the ABC drama lineup led by Once Upon a Time, which usually pulled about half of last year's comedy ratings.



Then comes the winter. Thursdays still produce huge gains with both Young Sheldon and Will and Grace in play, along with The Four on Fox and a dazzling run for Grey's Anatomy. Tuesdays and Sundays still lean positive, with Tuesday getting a boost from Ellen's Game of Games, but Mondays have tapered off a bit with a bad season from The Bachelor joining the poor comparisons for the CBS lineup. (But The Good Doctor is so huge that ABC is still usually up in Plus even with The Bachelor down close to 30%!)

The real difference for broadcast in the winter is that those two consistently bad nights - Wednesday and Friday - have suddenly become even at worst. On Wednesday, the flashy story is Fox's newbie 9-1-1. Combined with The X-Files, this lineup is up in Plus from last year's Lethal Weapon and Star... a big change from the network's consistent sharp declines throughout the fall. But a surprisingly stout season of The Amazing Race on CBS and the improved trends of The Blacklist on NBC have also contributed to the redemption of Wednesday.

On Friday, the big story is once again Fox. Not only did The Four do well on Thursday, but it has the added benefit of allowing Hell's Kitchen to stay on Friday. That means Kitchen has gone from modest Plus declines vs. itself to absolutely smashing the year-ago winter occupants, Rosewood and Sleepy Hollow. (And the network also "games" the league average a bit by airing repeats at 9/8c.) Game show Child Support has helped ABC mitigate its declines and seemingly even helped Agents of SHIELD and 20/20 a bit, though the network's drops are still pretty significant, and it seems like MacGyver and Hawaii Five-0 got a little more winter bounce than last year.

In summary, broadcast has gone from a mix of good/bad/neutral nights in the fall to pretty much just a mix of good and neutral nights in the winter. Very few individual nights in 2018 have fallen harder than the league average decline we saw through most of the fall. And that means the projected league average is continuing to pick up about half a hundredth every week, even though it should be harder to do so since the sample size is larger.

Looking to the Spring

So where do we go from here?  Before the season, my guess was that the projection would stay in the very low 1.00s for most of the season and then tick up some in the spring because we'd be comparing against such a down spring last year, and ABC's American Idol comparisons were almost bound to be extremely favorable when thrown up against last spring's Time Time Crime lineup.

The Idol comparisons should still help, but we'll also be losing a lot of the scenarios that produced such incredible comparisons all season. Ellen's Game of Games is done, so NBC goes from smashing The Wall back to The Voice vs. itself. 9-1-1, The Good Doctor, Will and Grace all have only around four episodes remaining. Then Fox will be back to bad Empire-vs.-itself comparisons (although Star should look better when compared with Shots Fired), ABC takes a stab with The Crossing and NBC tries to navigate a comedy night without W&G or overachieving The Good Place.

Remember, in terms of the league average projection, it's not about what these shows are doing compared with the fall/winter ratings. Shows declining in the spring is already baked in. What changes in the projection is what happens compared with last spring. Empire and The Voice shouldn't be too far from what 9-1-1 and Game of Games were doing, but there's no way they will have such favorable y2y comparisons since they'll be up against themselves.

I'm not sure how it will shake out, but since we're well over a month into this single-digit decline phase, it seems more likely the projection will continue going up, rather than suddenly take a sharp turn in the other direction. The Olympics may continue to inflate it a bit in the next couple weeks, since the relative lack of originals should continue to keep the season-to-date league average pretty steady. And 9-1-1 and Good Doc aren't done yet, so we'll have a brief period when we have Idol overlapping with many of the fall/winter successes.

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