TV Ratings: ‘Hairspray Live!’ Brings in Lowest Ratings Yet for Live Musicals

Hairspray Live! Ratings
Justin Lubin/NBC

UPDATED: We may be entering a place of diminishing returns for live televised musicals. NBC’s “Hairspray Live!” pulled in a 2.3 rating in the advertiser-coveted 18-49 demographic and 9 million total viewers according to Nielsen’s final ratings for Wednesday night.

Here’s how that stacks up against the live-same-day ratings for other televised live musicals:

  • “The Sound of Music Live!” (aired Dec. 5, 2013 on NBC): 4.6, 18.62 million
  • “Peter Pan Live!” (aired Dec. 4, 2014 on NBC): 2.4, 9.21 million
  • “The Wiz Live!” (aired Dec. 3, 2015 on NBC): 3.4, 11.5 million
  • “Grease: Live” (aired Jan. 31, 2016 on Fox): 4.3, 12.18 million


TV Review: ‘Hairspray Live!’

Perhaps of note is the competition NBC’s musicals faced. The biggest obstacles on the channel guide for “Hairspray” were a waning “Empire” (2.5 in the demo, 7 million viewers, a new series low) and the 33rd edition of “Survivor” (1.7 in the demo, 8.39 million viewers). “The Sound of Music” and “Peter Pan” both aired against Thursday Night Football games that were running only on NFL Network, but “The Wiz” had to contend with a tight Packers-Lions matchup that aired on CBS. On the bright side, “Hairspray” pulled in an average 2.1 rating in the 18-34 demographic, a feat not often seen with live ratings.

NBC has committed to making the format an annual tradition, regardless of ratings. Next year’s musical installment will be “Bye Bye Birdie,” starring Jennifer Lopez, and the network has set a live televised production of Aaron Sorkin’s “A Few Good Men.”

However, ad-buying sources tell Variety that these ratings are well below the guarantees the network made, indicating that NBC will have to fork over other ad inventory to make up for the shortfall. That said, advertising isn’t the be-all-end-all of revenue for a special like this. There’s the possibility of picking up revenue from album sales or — in a case like “The Wiz Live!” — reviving a musical and making money that way.

“Hairspray” wasn’t the only thing airing last night on the broadcast networks. Here’s how everything else did:

In addition to “Survivor,” CBS had a new “Criminal Minds” that came in at a 1.3 in the demo and 7.73 million viewers, and a new “Code Black,” which ticked up to a 1.1 and 6.72 million viewers.

Fox’s “Empire” lead-in “Lethal Weapon” also brought in a low 1.4 in the demo and 6.25 million viewers.

On ABC, “The Goldbergs” came in slightly slow with a 1.5 and 5.4 million viewers. “Speechless” was also low with a 1.3 and 4.55 million viewers. Coming out of a “Modern Family” repeat, “Black-ish” drew a 1.2 and 4.19 million viewers. “Designated Survivor” came in with a low 1.1 in the demo and 5.18 million viewers.

The CW’s “Arrow” drew a 0.7 and 1.94 million viewers. “Frequency” came in with an unpleasant 0.2 in the demo and 874,000 viewers.

As a reminder, most of these scripted series will see lifts of 50% or more once viewing within three and seven days is counted. However, most of those gains won’t translate to the ratings guarantees networks make to advertisers.

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  1. Sydney White says:

    I’m 29, and nothing else on that night was ANY kind of competition for it in my book. The show was a BLAST! Imo, the best live musical so far, followed closely by Grease. I was literally rocking around my Christmas tree whilst decorating and watching/singing+dancing along to Hairspray. :D Maybe they shouldn’t have picked a Wednesday night, and it would’ve gotten at least as many viewers as Peter Pan or The Wiz.

    Sure hope this live-musical thing continues for a long, long time. I’m not a J-Lo fan, but Bye Bye Birdie is a fun show and should be good. My votes would be for Little Shop of Horrors, The Producers, Mamma Mia!, Into the Woods, Chicago, Sweeney Todd, or even Cats [now wouldn’t THAT be an interesting one to see done this way?! Nonhuman characters are so very rare…although, it is currently back on Broadway, and they might fear that a free live show would hurt ticket sales…]) Austin is right about Disney musicals–imagine the ratings for The Little Mermaid, The Lion King, Beauty & the Beast, Aladdin, etc., if you could do those.

  2. Nora Feldman says:

    I’m not a big “Hairspray” fan, but NBC knocked it out of the park last night. Brilliant work all the way around. Thank you!

  3. Austin Anally says:

    Sometimes perceptions bring with them unattainable expectations. Treasured and dearly beloved musicals the scale of THE SOUND OF MUSIC, or GREASE, or THE WIZ are rare. And most of the ones that would be ratings monsters probably are the property of Disney and would most likely air on ABC if they had a programming chief smart enough to greenlight them. THE LION KING, BEAUTY AND THE BEAST, MARY POPPINS, INTO THE WOODS, are just a few that would blow the roof off the ratings ceiling set by TSOM, if ABC/DISNEY ever gets into the primetime musical business. One thing is for sure, the Latin version of BYE BYE BIRDIE is sure to set a new ratings low next year. Who knows what that is about to begin with?

    • T.E. Burgos says:

      There is no such thing as a “Latin version of BYE BYE BIRDIE.” Did you say that because of Jennifer Lopez being the star of this upcoming show? Bye Bye Birdie has always had a Latina character; her name is Rose Álvarez and in the original Broadway staging, she was played by Broadway legend Chita Rivera, who is of Puerto Rican descent.

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