Fox on Monday night established a high-water mark for the summer, as Gordon Ramsay’s latest exercise in bellowing at people in the service industry delivered the biggest 18-to-49 rating of an otherwise dismal season for the broadcast networks.
Per Nielsen live-plus-same-day data, Ramsay’s new show Hotel Hell scared up 5.12 million viewers and a 1.9 rating in the dollar demo, topping the summer’s 13 other premieres.
No other summer opener has come as close to notching a 2.0 in the 18-to-49 demo. Before Hotel Hell, the strongest debut of the summer came courtesy of Fox’s celebrity dating show, The Choice, which bowed to a 1.8 in the demo on Thursday, June 7.
Also within breathing distance was NBC's new competition series, Stars Earn Stripes, which bowed Aug. 13 opposite Hotel Hell in the 8 p.m. time slot. Much ballyhooed throughout the Olympics, Stripes averaged 5.24 million viewers and a 1.7 in the crucial 18-to-49 demo.
This summer has been a particularly bleak time for broadcasters, as an overabundance of uninspired reality and competition series have left viewers scrambling for the remote. Through Tuesday, Aug. 14, the average rating for a 2012 summer premiere is a modest 1.2. Four series have debuted to a sub-1.0 rating, including CBS’s gnomically titled dating show 3 (0.8), NBC’s scripted drama Saving Hope (0.7) and The CW’s reality bookends Breaking Pointe (0.3) and The Catalina (0.3).
Thus far, two summer series have been canceled outright. CBS yanked 3 after its second installment delivered a mere 1.65 million viewers and a 0.5 rating opposite NBC’s coverage of the London Olympics, while ABC disposed of its improv comedy effort, Trust Us With Your Life, with two episodes left in the hopper. The five installments that did air averaged 2.55 million viewers and a 0.9 in the demo.
If each network has suffered its share of summer flops, ABC has risked more exposure than its rivals, introducing five new series since the steamy season began. In aggregate, the new projects have averaged 3.58 million viewers and a 1.0 in the demo. (By way of comparison, ABC averaged 8.4 million viewers and a 2.4 in the demo for the entire 2011-12 season.)
Even familiar faces are losing favor. Although NBC’s America’s Got Talent, CBS’ Big Brother and Fox’s one-two punch of Hell’s Kitchen and MasterChef remain the hottest summer shows on the dial, all four series are experiencing year-over-year declines. Moreover, these shows are getting long in the tooth. This marks the 14th cycle for Big Brother, Ramsay’s Kitchen has been on the boil for 10 seasons and AGT is nearing the end of its seventh term.
Speaking of Ramsay, the splenetic Brit pulled off a rare trick Tuesday night, managing to actually build on his premiere ratings. The second installment of Hotel Hell averaged 5.09 million viewers and a 2.1 in the 8 p.m. time slot, marking an 11 percent improvement in the dollar demo. Thus far, no other summer series, new or returning, has performed a similar feat.
While seasonally low HUT levels and the indomitable black hole that was the 2012 Summer Games can explain away some of the ratings doldrums, broadcasters may have to come to terms with the fact that reality TV is an airborne Fonzie gliding majestically above a toothy predator. Meanwhile, summer cable is such an embarrassment of riches that a single weekend hour boasts some of the most-watched and/or buzzworthy dramas on the dial. Breaking Bad (AMC), Longmire (A&E), Army Wives (Lifetime), The Newsroom (HBO) and Political Animals (USA Network) all vie for bragging rights to the Sunday 10 p.m. time slot.
In other words, if broadcasters ever want to shake themselves out of their annual funk, they may need to start taking a few more risks in sleepy season.
“We’re a long way from Survivor,” said one media buyer. “I don’t care how cheap this stuff is to make—if nobody’s watching or if the clients don’t want to have anything to do with it from a content perspective, you may as well just run color bars.”