Fading Ratings: How Far Broadcast TV Has Tumbled Since 2015

Fading Ratings
Cheyne Gateley/VIP+

In this article

  • Viewership metrics for the 18-49 demo show tremendous declines in live and same-day viewing for primetime fall shows
  • Scripted content has seen the biggest drops as consumption patterns change
  • There are just 10 shows or special events with an average 18-49 demo rating greater than 1.0 in 2021, versus 77 in 2015

The following is excerpted from Variety VIP+‘s forthcoming report “Fading Ratings,” which will be available exclusively to subscribers on Jan. 4, 2022. The report will provide an extensive analysis of changes in viewership of broadcast and cable TV for the 18-49 demo and total audience. Subscribe to VIP+.

It is no surprise that the audience for viewing broadcast TV shows is shrinking among the key advertising demo of 18-49.

VIP+ documents every quarter how the total pay-TV subscriber market continues to shrink. Even accounting for some cord-cutters picking up an antenna to continue watching over-the-air content for free, the total available base for viewing is declining.

VIP+ has conducted an exhaustive analysis via a partnership with leading data-extraction firm Impira of the performance of shows airing on ABC, CBS, Fox and NBC in the first two months of the 2021 fall season and 2015, the furthest year we could go back for comparison.

For the purposes of this article, the analysis will be restricted to content airing in primetime between 8 and 10 p.m. among the 18-49 demo, but the full report will expand this to 11 p.m. and also include analysis among total audience.

What the findings depict is a viewership landscape that’s radically different today than the one in 2015, with all time slots seeing significant declines in total broadcast TV primetime viewing.

The days with the smaller declines — Thursday, Saturday and Sunday — have sports propping them up, but this will change come 2022, when the NFL’s Thursday games depart from network TV.

Comparing the top 25 fall primetime shows of 2015 and 2021 shows big differences both in viewership and genre. Both charts are on the same scale, making it apparent just how much the typical viewership has shrunk.

Consider the decline of scripted content as well in the 2021 list. Broadcast TV is fast becoming the domain of sports, specials — Adele’s recent CBS special being the most watched non-sports content — and reality.

This isn’t to suggest that scripted is no longer important. It has just shifted to another medium as networks have an increasingly complex digital-windowing strategy. New episodes are available to watch one day after airing on pay-TV subscription authenticated TVE apps, which, while not reaching the heights hoped for in the mid-2010s, still provide a solid chunk of viewership.

Depending upon arrangements made, the content will also be available on various streaming services at the same time, most of which have the option to watch with or without ads. Once the season ends, the show may then move to a different streaming service.

This complex arrangement offers viewers multiple ways to see a show outside of its time slot that can still be monetized by the networks.

It is currently impossible to measure the true long tail of viewership across all sources, but it shouldn’t be forgotten that not all formats are experiencing this to the same degree as dramas and comedies.

Content that ages faster is still being watched on the networks in vastly greater numbers and holds a major clue as to the type of content to expect to see more of on broadcast TV in the future.

While the drops in viewership are stark, it should be noted that the four major broadcast networks still offer advertisers one of, if not the, best ways to still reach consumers and at scale.

The analysis is not meant to be sounding the death knell of television — it remains very much alive — but instead depict the new landscape. Broadcast TV remains an important way for advertisers to reach existing and potential consumers.

The difference today is that other entertainment formats compete with broadcast on scale, and to buy against the demo as effectively as possible requires a much deeper strategy than was necessary even six years ago. (See VIP+’s “Demographic Divide” special report for a deeper dive into the competition for entertainment.)

Broadcast TV isn’t going anywhere. But don’t expect it to look the same in five years’ time as content is changed to find the optimal formula to attract the most viewers.

Read the full special report