‘Tis the season for year-end ratings press releases, most of which categorize their respective networks as No. 1.
For a channel like USA, that means being the number one ad-supported entertainment cable network in total viewers for the 11th consecutive year, thanks in no small part to the WWE and “Chrisley Knows Best.”
For others, that means picking and choosing genres or individual shows and time slots, comparing numbers for the previous cycle of a series (rather than a year-over-year comparison), and plenty of other methodological manipulation.
Ratings aren’t the be-all and end-all of moneymaking in. Cable broadcaster nets both rake in significant amounts of money from MVPDs and streaming services that buy the shows they own.
But meat-and-potatoes ratings do still matter, as evidenced by the flurry of No. 1 claims. Here’s a look at some of the winners and losers of the 2016 ratings race.
WINNER: “This Is Us” (NBC)
It’s not as if NBC hasn’t tried a feel-good family drama before. “Parenthood,” lauded by critics, was at best a fine performer and at worst an expensive occupier of a 10 p.m. slot. “This Is Us,” however, has turned into a beacon of hope for the network.
It’s the first series that has managed to actually build on its lead-in from “The Voice.” “This Is Us” is averaging a 2.6 rating in the advertiser-coveted 18-49 demographic and 9.56 million total viewers — and that’s just in Nielsen’s Live-plus-Same Day (L+SD) ratings. It generally adds on another 2.0 in the demo and 5 million viewers once viewing within seven days is counted, and around four-tenths of a point in the commercial (“C3”) ratings that matter to advertisers.
And in the final stretch of the fall, “This Is Us” began beating Fox’s “Empire,” broadcast TV’s 800-pound drama gorilla.
LOSER: Most Other Marquee Dramas (Ad-Supported Networks)
Week-over-week ratings growth isn’t sustainable for any series, so it was inevitable that Fox’s “Empire” would slow down. Cookie Lyon’s drama crumbled fast in its third season, losing 40% of its premiere audience from 2015, and subsequently sinking to series lows that weren’t made up for even with seven extra days of viewing factored in.
“Empire” still commands a healthy audience. However, the big drop is felt a more keenly given where it started.
For ABC, drama ratings slides are affecting even the key “TGIT” block on Thursdays. “How to Get Away With Murder,” once looked to as a shining example of how to get people to watch TV at 10 p.m., is down another 34% from its last season. Not helping matters was its lead-in, the non-starter that was “Notorious,” which finished its first season run with an unpleasant 0.5 in the demo (L+SD). “Once Upon a Time” on Sundays is down around 23% from last season. “Quantico” is off 40%, averaging just 947,000 live-same-day viewers in the 18-49 demo. Delayed viewing isn’t bringing the ratings for these shows back up to previous levels.
On the plus side for ABC, “Grey’s Anatomy” is still performing remarkably well for a drama in its 13th season, averaging a 2.2 in the demo in L+SD, and 8.03 million viewers, representing a decrease of only 1 percent in the demo.
AMC suffers by comparison to last year: 2015 saw the very successful launches of “Better Call Saul” and “Fear the Walking Dead” and the continued chest-thumping dominance of “The Walking Dead.”
But while AMC’s dramas continue to perform far better than most of their cable counterparts, the higher you fly, the further you have to fall. When a single show — “The Walking Dead” — accounts for almost 20% of the ratings you have to offer advertisers, people are going to notice when episodes of that show lose nearly a quarter of their audience compared to the year before, even if you end the season down only 16% in the 18-49 demo.
“Walking Dead” didn’t see the biggest losses from year to year for AMC, though. “Fear the Walking Dead” plummeted more than 50% in the demo in its second season, and “Better Call Saul” was off a little more than 42%.
Before everyone panics: AMC’s losses are relative. “The Walking Dead” still draws the biggest young audience on TV outside of sports, with an average 7.3 million in the 18-49 range — again, just in Nielsen’s L+SD. Of the top five cable dramas, three are AMC’s: both “Dead”s, and “Better Call Saul.” (FX has the other two: “American Horror Story” and “American Crime Story.”)
WINNER: “Atlanta” (FX)
Donald Glover’s comedy is not only garnering a boatload of awards-show kudos, it’s also the most-watched comedy season in FX’s history, drawing an average 4.7 million viewers per episode once viewing across all platforms is taken into account. Equally impressive, the show shoots from around a 0.5 rating L+SD in the 18-49 demo to a 0.7 in the C3 ratings networks guarantee advertisers.
WINNER: The Dallas Cowboys
The moniker “America’s Team” doesn’t necessarily indicate that all of America likes the Cowboys. But it will apparently watch them whenever they appear on national television. The Cowboys are pulling in an average TV audience of around 25 million this season for their 11 true national games. That’s one explanation for them being featured in nearly every national window available, while other teams like the Cleveland Browns are relegated to a single Thursday night game televised only on the NFL Network.
LOSER: The NFL’s Media Partners
Ratings for certain football windows are bouncing back from a slump in the first half of the season, but it’s unclear if that’s due to people returning to football after being glued to election coverage, an elevated level of play, or simply the fact that the Cowboys are appearing in more of the hardest-hit primetime windows. There’s also the mitigating factor of 2015 being such a gangbusters year for the NFL that some of the 2016 comparisons are suffering more as a result.
All the same, through week 15, CBS’ national Sunday afternoon package and NBC’s “Sunday Night Football” are both down 11% in total viewers from 2015. Fox’s national games are basically flat in viewers (though household ratings are down 4%). “Monday Night Football” on ESPN through week 14 is down 15% in total viewers.
The main drag on average viewership for a lot of those games wasn’t that fewer people were watching, it was that they were spending less time watching. Various possible fixes are being floated to correct the issue, including changing the length and frequency of commercial breaks.
The NFL rights are locked up at CBS, NBC, and Fox through 2022, and at ESPN through 2021, and while that’s still a ways away, there’s no way any of them will want to let them go. Even with these declines and skyrocketing rights costs, the NFL remains a must-have for the biggest networks.
WINNER: Cable News (Fox News, CNN, MSNBC)
The motives may have varied from set to set, but the fact remains: Cable news drew a far greater numbers of viewers this year than last. CNN and Fox News both experienced the most-watched year in their histories.
Of course, that more people were glued to cable news in an election year that upended many a democratic norm is not exactly surprising. But the gains are eye-popping, in some cases.
Fox News is the biggest winner here in terms of sheer volume. For the first time in its 20-year existence, it will finish the year as the most-watched cable network in primetime and for total day. Primetime ratings are up 36% from 2015, to an average 2.47 million per night, with 492,000 in the cable-news-coveted 25-54 demographic.
But CNN and MSNBC made more impressive gains, percentage-wise. And CNN is now nipping at Fox News’ heels in the news demo: 436,000 in primetime, and 235,000 to Fox News’ 282,000 for total day. CNN was up 79% in the demo in primetime although Fox has seen its lead grow in the past few weeks post-election.
MSNBC is still languishing in third place, though it experienced the biggest percentage gains from the previous year. It grew 94% in the demo in primetime, from 144,000 to 279,000, and its total primetime audience grew 86%, from 596,000 to 1.11 million.
LOSER: Late-Night TV
This sounds a little strange, because late-night shows provided so much Internet-friendly material during the endless presidential campaign. But ratings for most of the late-night talkers are down, sometimes by big chunks.
In the 18-49 demo, the three broadcast shows at 11:35 have been hit hard. “The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon” on NBC has lost 13% of its demo audience from 2015 (which itself was down 8% from 2014). ABC’s “Jimmy Kimmel Live” has been hit even harder: He’s down around 16% in the demo. CBS’ “The Late Show with Stephen Colbert” is down 7% in total viewers and 24% in the demo.
The 12:35 a.m. shows are bearing up a little better. Seth Meyers’ “Late Night” is down slightly — 6% in the demo and just a hair in total viewers. “The Late Late Show with James Corden” dipped just 2% in the demo and actually grew its total audience 16%.
Comedy Central’s “The Daily Show with Trevor Noah” is down 27% from 2015 in total viewers (after being down 40% from 2014), and around 30% in the 18-49 demo. TBS’ “Conan” remains at the bottom of the late-night pile, drawing less than half of the total viewers of its nearest competition.
Some of these shows make decent gains with delayed viewing, but this points to the changing function of daily late-night shows. Rather than serving as a glass of warm milk before bedtime, they’re merely the launching pad for content that makes its away across the vast landscape of the Internet. Case in point, franchise segments from CBS’ “Late Late Show” spawned not one but two series spinoffs this year, Apple’s “Carpool Karaoke” and TBS’ “Drop the Mic.”
Much is made over the 18-49 demographic in TV ratings — it’s the currency that backs a lot of ad deals. But there are other demographics that matter as well, particularly in the cable world, and smaller networks can make a decent profit by targeting these audiences.
Thanks in part to an infusion of Tyler Perry and Ava DuVernay, the Oprah Winfrey Network has gone from a tenuous existence to a stable draw of women 25-54, an attractive group given that they tend to make most household purchasing decisions, and this year marks a particularly impressive turn with the launches of DuVernay’s “Queen Sugar” and Craig Wright and Winfrey’s “Greenleaf.” “Queen Sugar” is averaging 1.6 million viewers and a 1.4 rating in the women 25-54 demo, and “Greenleaf” is pulling in just over 2 million viewers and a 1.67 rating in women 25-54.
Tyler Perry’s “The Haves and the Have Nots,” heading into its fifth season, draws 2.9 million viewers an episode, and pulls in a 2.14 rating in the women 25-54 demo. That’s slightly off from the previous season, but still a big number for OWN.
At the beginning of the year, Vice CEO Shane Smith made the press round asserting that knew how to bring Millennials back to the TV set — and that his new channel, Viceland, would do just that. Viceland, a joint venture between Vice and A+E Networks, replaced A+E’s History spinoff, H2, on the channel guide on Feb. 29.
The problem with aiming a 24/7 cable TV network at people who don’t watch 24/7 cable TV networks, though, is obvious. So far even unscripted shows with edgy titles like “F*ck, That’s Delicious” and “Balls Deep” aren’t bringing them back.
From Nov. 28-Dec. 18, the channel was averaging 25,000 viewers in the 18-34 demographic during primetime (L+SD), and 58,000 in the 18-49 demographic. That was up from November’s average of 17,800 in the 18-34 demo and in 18-49 (37,400). But for comparison, H2 in December 2015 drew an average primetime 18-34 audience of 29,800, and 95,600 in the 18-49 demo.
These numbers demonstrate the uphill climb facing Viceland. But Smith might take heart from the story of OWN. Winfrey’s joint venture with Discovery Communications spent several years in the Nielsen cellar — pulling numbers lower than its predecessor Discovery Health network — before finding its footing.
On the positive side, Viceland points to the swift decline in the channel’s median age during the past year (losing 15 years to 41 in recent weeks) and recent momentum for shows including “Weediquette,” the fledgling late-night entry “Desus & Mero” and new series “Bong Appetite” and “Hamilton’s Pharmacopeia.”
(Pictured: “The Walking Dead,” “Empire,” “This Is Us,” the Dallas Cowboys)