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

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

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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