NEW YORK The November sweeps, once a chance for the broadcast networks to bolster ratings before heading into December repeats, have become a major disappointment, with delivery of adults 18-49 down by 13-21 percent and total viewers off by 800,000 to 2.4 million a night.
"The 18-49 declines are awful, but particularly for NBC, which is digging itself a particularly big hole going forward," said Lyle Schwartz, executive vp, director of broadcast research for GroupM.
Through the first 19 days of sweeps, NBC averaged 8.3 million viewers per night, down from 10.7 million last November. NBC's 18-49 rating is down to a 3.2, off 18 percent from last year. (Only the more narrowly targeted CW has suffered greater declines during the sweeps. But advertisers are more tolerant of its falloff because it still delivers young female viewers.)
"In the last upfront, we gave NBC the benefit of the doubt. But if things keep up like this, we may have to take a different approach in the next upfront," said another agency exec, who declined to speak for attribution. "If these huge ratings declines continue, we will have to look at NBC with a more jaundiced eye."
With the exception of dramedy Chuck—-a modest success averaging a 3.1 18-49 rating on Mondays at 8 p.m.—none of NBC's new shows have captured significant viewer interest. Dramas Journeyman, Life and Bionic Woman-all of which skew heavily male—are averaging between a 2.3 and 2.5 18-49 rating, and between 5.7 million and 6.9 million viewers.
NBC's lack of freshman successes comes on the heels of a returning schedule that, likewise, has sustained no big hits. Law & Order: SVU is the network's most-watched scripted show, with just over 12 million viewers, while Heroes is averaging a bit more than 10 million viewers. The Office attracts a favorable 18-49 number but draws fewer than 9 million total viewers.
Some buyers believe NBC went too heavily male with its new prime-time crop, in contrast to ABC's female-targeted strategy. ABC is averaging only 800,000 fewer viewers per night against last year's November sweeps, while NBC is off an eye-popping 2.4 million.
Buyers point out that ABC added seven new shows to its fall lineup—among them, the hit sitcom Samantha Who?—while NBC rolled out only four new series, none of them traditional half-hour sitcoms.
Fox is the only network improving its sweeps performance year over year. The net is up 19 percent in adults 18-49, with a 3.2 rating, and has gained 1.4 million total viewers, up 21 percent. Meanwhile, Fox still has four new scripted shows to bring out in the first quarter.
Vince Manze, president of program planning at NBC, said it is ironic that media buyers, known for always demanding "hard-to-reach" male viewers in prime time, are now criticizing the net for introducing more shows targeting the demo. He said a good chunk of NBC's ratings decline, particularly in November, is a result of Sunday Night Football, where matchups may not have been as attractive as last year. He also pointed out that a number of shows, including The Office, still draw a desirable, affluent audience.
Manze disputed buyer perceptions that NBC depends too heavily on reality over scripted, pointing out that the net currently has four hours of reality or game shows on air, on par with the other nets. But buyers said NBC, unlike ABC with Dancing With the Stars or Fox with its soon-to-return American Idol, does not have a blockbuster mega-hit reality show that can accommodate make goods.
When it comes to the 18-49 demo race, Fox is clearly in the driver's seat once again. Season to date, Fox is averaging a 3.5 18-49 rating, up 17 percent over last year and only 0.3 behind first-place ABC. Last season at this point, Fox ranked fourth, with a 3.0 rating, 1.2 rating points behind leader ABC.
"Fox is certainly the odds-on favorite to win the demo again this year," said Schwartz.