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Fall TV Ratings: Broadcast Nets Relieved As Viewers Show Up for Big Premieres

Key questions and takeaways after the first week of the season

Fall Television

What have we learned so far?

One week into the 2014-15 television season, according to Nielsen’s official game clock, the biggest headline for the broadcast nets is that they’ve been able to generate solid sampling for high-priority new shows such as Fox’s “Gotham,” CBS’ “Scorpion,” NBC’s “The Mysteries of Laura” and ABC’s “How to Get Away with Murder.”

The fact that people showed up for the big premieres (so far) is a relief for the Big Four nets, even as execs take decisive steps this year to adjust to the new realities of programming in the on-demand era.

More than half of the fall’s lineup of new shows — including most of the comedies — have yet to bow, but some early storylines and bigger-picture themes are starting to emerge after opening five days of the television season.

Among the key takeaways and questions as week two begins:

TAKEAWAYS

Each of the broadcast nets was able to provide strong sampling for their highest-priority shows. ABC’s “Black-ish” and “How to Get Away With Murder,” CBS’ “Scorpion” and “Madam Secretary,” NBC’s “The Mysteries of Laura” and Fox’s “Gotham” all garnered about as good of ratings as their respective nets could have asked for. “Gotham” might have been able to do better in live ratings if it aired in a less-crowded timeslot than Monday 8 p.m., but the premiere delivered a monster DVR lift in Live Plus 3 ratings, gaining 1.8 points in 18-49 after just three days to hit an impressive 5.0 demo rating. It also deserves credit as the only one of the bunch to have to self-start in the 8 p.m. leadoff slot.

“Black-ish,” which opened to a 3.3 rating in adults 18-49 and 11.04 million viewers overall, is a good fit in ABC’s Wednesday comedy lineup, which has been dragged down of late by low-rated 9:30 p.m. shows including “Happy Endings,” “Super Fun Night” and “Mixology.” Relative to its “Modern Family” lead-in, it retained 85% in adults 18-49 and more than 90% in both women 25-54 and total viewers.

“How to Get Away With Murder” is the season’s top newcomer in same-night adults 18-49 rating (3.9), retaining all of its “Scandal” lead-in and building on it in total viewers (drawing 14.34 million). The net’s smartly branded “TGIT” lineup of Shonda Rhimes-produced shows, which includes “Grey’s Anatomy” kicking off the night, will be a destination for millions of female viewers this fall — and their premieres may have been helped by the fact that CBS aired football and not entertainment series.

Despite airing in what has been a CBS comedy timeslot for decades, “Scorpion” opened to a 3.2 rating in 18-49 (13.83 million viewers overall) and is the season’s top new series in adults 25-54 (tied with “How to Get Away With Murder”). It figured to get strong sampling behind “The Big Bang Theory,” and CBS made a good decision this week in deciding to air “Big Bang” repeats leading into it for the next three weeks (instead of the planned “Mom”). CBS really fell off on Mondays a year ago, and a solid performance here, along with “NCIS: Los Angeles” behind it, could help shore it up.

“Mysteries of Laura” didn’t generate great reviews, but audiences tuned in to see Debra Messing take on bad guys. It averaged a 2.0 rating in 18-49 and 10.19 million viewers overall in its 10 p.m. preview episode behind “America’s Got Talent” and then held up pretty well when it moved to its regular 8 p.m. timeslot (1.5 in the demo, 10.01 million opposite premieres on other networks). Airing this kind of show in an hour where CBS doesn’t have a competing crime drama is a smart move by NBC, and the crime-fighting shows behind it (“Law & Order: SVU” and “Chicago PD”) should benefit from a more compatible lead-in than last year’s “Revolution.”

“Gotham” opened to a 3.2 rating in adults 18-49 and 8.21 million total viewers, making it Fox’s top-rated weeknight program during premiere week. A positive sign for Fox was that despite going up against “The Big Bang Theory” and “The Voice” as well as the start of “Monday Night Football” in most of the country, the second half-hour of “Gotham” slightly improved upon its first half-hour.

Keep in mind that premiere numbers often amount to false-positives. Last season, “Crazy Ones,” “Go On” and “Super Fun Night” delivered three of the top four premiere 18-49 ratings for comedies (“The Millers” was the other) and none of them is still around.

Future weeks will provide a better picture of these shows’ long-term ratings potential, but getting eyeballs to the set on premiere night — even in a DVR/VOD/Netflix world — still gives a show its best chance to succeed. And as we’ve seen over the last week, no medium can do it like broadcast television.

“The Voice” still has some left in the tank.

Coming off a season in which Fox pulled the plug on “The X Factor” due to its tumbling ratings and the net’s “American Idol” endured its roughest season to date, many were questioning how “The Voice” — TV’s top-rated reality series in 18-49 — would fare in its seventh season. On opening night against brutally tough competition, its 3.9 rating in 18-49 was the show’s lowest yet for a premiere (down 24% from last year), but it bounced back to a 4.0 on Tuesday (down 15% from last year); and yet despite those declines, it was strong enough to stand as the No. 2 series on Monday and No. 1 on Tuesday.

The show has taken on an older skew over the last year or so, and this contributed to a roughly 10% year-over-year decline last season. Certainly,  fatigue could be a factor, too, as “The Voice” racked up more than 4,800 first-run minutes with its fall 2013 and spring 2014 editions — believed to be the most any series has aired during a television season.

The addition of Gwen Stefani and Pharrell Williams as judges has created some buzz around “The Voice” this fall, and NBC is hoping the show can stay strong enough to provide a potent lead-in to Katherine Heigl rookie “State of Affairs,” which doesn’t bow until November. So far, the net has effectively used “The Voice” to launch “The Blacklist” and “Chicago Fire,” and has had modest success with comedies, including “About a Boy.” Starting Oct. 14, new romantic comedy “Marry Me” will get the “Voice” lead-in on Tuesdays.

It’s tough for limited series to return after a long break.

Several “limited” series that delivered strong initial ratings — like 2013’s “The Following,” “Under the Dome” and “Sleepy Hollow” — have not performed nearly as well when they returned in 2014  after length breaks of about nine months. This was somewhat understandable with “The Following” and “Under the Dome,” both of which seemed better suited for a single season, but  “Sleepy Hollow” finished its 13-episode rookie season strong creatively and ratings-wise, so its soft start — especially with a sizable lead-in push from “Gotham” — was one of the biggest surprises from premiere week..

“Sleepy Hollow” opened to a series low (2.0), down about 40% from its strong year-ago premiere and about 15% lower than its finale in March. The decline may have been due in part to increased drama competition this year (from CBS’ “Scorpion”).

Cable networks can drum up interest for a limited series by running the sprockets off it in the days leading up to its return, and the networks may need to look for ways to create on-air excitement. Simply replaying the previous season’s finale one week before its return probably isn’t going to cut it.

The aging of America’s TV-viewing audience is skewing total-viewer results more than ever.

Over the last five years, the number of adults 18-49 living in TV homes, according to Nielsen, has declined by about 5 million while the number of adults 55 and older has increased by about 10 million. This disproportionate growth is why some shows — mostly the crime dramas, but also “The Voice” and even football — are looking better these days in total-viewer comparisons than demos.

For example, “Law & Order: SVU” and “Grey’s Anatomy” returned last week to multi-year highs in total viewers even though they came in below their year-ago premieres in demos. And new CBS drama “NCIS: New Orleans” drew more total viewers than “NCIS: Los Angeles” in its timeslot a year ago, but was down about 15% in adults 18-49.

There will always be interest in knowing how many eyeballs are watching a show, but judging ratings performance by looking solely at the total-viewer column is misguided until the graying of the audience forces advertisers to embrace a wider demo spectrum. But for now, marketers continue to put a premium on harder-to-reach young adults. And that means performance in the 18-49 demo is what most closely correlates with ad revenue.

A good show with an original concept and a cast that reflects today’s America is a breath of fresh air on the broadcasters.

Both “Black-ish” — the first Big Four comedy featuring an African-American family since “Bernie Mac” — and “How to Get Away With Murder” received above-average reviews, feature minority casts and are unlike anything else on television. And now they’ve good ratings to show for it (well, at least their premieres).

The quality/originality/diversity combo could also work for CW’s “Jane the Virgin,” which has generated some of the fall’s most glowing reviews and premieres in October. Also qualifying would be ABC’s “Fresh Off the Boat,” a midseason comedy about an Asian-American family that has already created some positive buzz among critics.

And although the more traditional, multi-camera “Cristela” hasn’t garnered great reviews, it wouldn’t be surprising to see audiences flock to the family comedy about a Mexican-American law graduate when it bows in a couple of weeks on Friday between “Last Man Standing” and “Shark Tank” on ABC.

Hispanics, African-Americans and Asian-Americans now comprise 41% of the adults 18-49 living in TV homes, according to Nielsen, up from 36% five years ago.

QUESTIONS

Are there any more comedy hits out there?

It’s become harder and harder for new half-hours to break out, and the nets appear less confident in their development this season. Fox, CBS and NBC each have two fewer sitcom slots while ABC has the same. And during premiere week, ABC’s “Black-ish” was the only rookie to air.

ABC and NBC this week are both trying to pull off the difficult task of bowing new comedies back-to-back without an established comedy lead-in. The Alphabet’s “Selfie” and “Manhattan Love Story” will lead off Tuesday opposite “The Voice” and “NCIS,” while NBC’s “Bad Judge” and “A to Z” will follow “The Biggest Loser” on Thursday, where its competition will include ABC’s “Scandal.”

Fox is trying to carve out new turf for live-action comedies by slotting “Brooklyn Nine-Nine” and newcomer “Mulaney” behind the established “The Simpsons” and “Family Guy,” respectively.

And CBS is using “Two and a Half Men” as a lead-in to its only new half-hour of the season, “The McCarthys,” which bows Oct. 30.

What sophomore shows will blossom into hits?

While first-year shows get the most attention at this time of the year, it’s also important for second-year shows looking to make that next step. In this regard, NBC’s “The Blacklist” and ABC’s “The Goldbergs” look to be in good shape; the former delivered its second best rating to date with its premiere (3.4), and the latter impressed by building on its “The Middle” lead-in (to 2.4) in its new  Wednesday timeslot.

Also looking good in its premiere was NBC’s “Chicago PD,” which was at the high end of its first-season range (1.9). ABC’s “Resurrection” and CW’s “The Originals” get a chance to show they’re for real as they return this week.

Other than “Goldbergs,” the comedies best positioned to break out in its second season could be CBS’ “Mom,” which will get a chance to air behind “The Big Bang Theory” when it premieres in late October, and Fox’s “Brooklyn Nine-Nine,” which will air between “The Simpsons” and “Family Guy.”

How high will some of these DVR lifts be?

In anticipation of record DVR playback again this fall, the networks’ spin-meisters are including “live plus-3” and “live plus-7” projections along with their daily ratings reports.

In 2014, we’ve already seen some smaller cable dramas like “The Bridge” and “Masters of Sex” more than double their young-adult audience in L7, and it wouldn’t be surprising to see some of the lower-tier broadcast shows achieve this too. Even a show like “The Big Bang Theory,” which is a ratings monster in same night ratings, has seen its percentage lifts grow from about 25% in the fall of 2011 to nearly 70% with its closing episodes of last season.

“The Big Bang Theory” figured to be an interesting DVR measuring stick, because its “live plus same-day” premiere rating in 18-49 (5.4) was down a tick from last year when it aired on Thursday against lesser competition. But in “live plus-3” numbers released Saturday, it rose by 2.0 points vs. last year’s 1.8-point lift, putting its L3 result a tick ahead of last year (7.4 vs. 7.3) — amazing for a show kicking off its eighth season.

NBC’s “The Blacklist” returned with more record-setting time-shifting numbers in total viewers, as its Monday premiere gained more than 5 million viewers within three days of DVR playback — and it now has 12 of the top 13 live+3 total-viewer lifts in U.S. television history.

Who will win the season?

We’re just a week into the season, but opinion on the season races haven’t changed much in this corner. NBC has enough to win in 18-49 for a second straight year, CBS will roll in total viewers, and the season’s tightest race figures to be between NBC and CBS for the adults 25-54 crown.

ABC has made the most improvements to its schedule, and will leap-frog Fox in 18-49. Under new leadership following Kevin Reilly’s exit in June, Fox may have to get comfortable in the basement, because as NBC learned when it took a tumble a decade ago, it can take a while to turn things around.