While broadcasters have blamed everything from the DVR to the Olympics for a soft ad sales marketplace, Walt Disney Co. chairman and CEO Bob Iger on Thursday allowed that unspectacular programming may have something to do with recent ratings shortfalls.
Speaking to investors during the company’s FY Q4 earnings call, Iger said broadcasters this season have failed to roll out any new blockbusters. “There’s been an absence of new, big, real buzz-worthy hits,” Iger said of the freshman class of dramas and comedies. “Would I have liked ABC to have put on the schedule a really big hit at the beginning of the year? Of course. But they put on a few shows that are I think quite serviceable and have potential, Nashville being one.”
ABC thus far has launched five new series, including a brace of comedies (The Neighbors, Malibu Country) and the dramas 666 Park Avenue, Last Resort and the aforementioned Nashville. Disregarding Malibu Country, which premiered last Friday to 9.13 million viewers and a 2.1 rating among adults 18-49, the new crop of ABC shows has underwhelmed.
Per Nielsen live-plus-same-day ratings data, none of the series that premiered in September and October has been able to maintain so much as a 2.0 in the demo. After bowing to 8.93 million viewers and a 2.8 on Oct. 10, the critics’ darling Nashville has fallen precipitously, drawing 5.74 million viewers and a 1.8 in the demo in its most recent outing. Meanwhile, Last Resort and 666 Park Avenue are both down to a 1.3 rating.
Through the first six weeks of the season, ABC is averaging a 2.5 in the dollar demo, leaving it tied with Fox for last place among the Big Four. A year ago at this time, ABC was averaging a 2.8 rating in prime time.
Like every other executive with a broadcast network in his company portfolio, Iger said increased penetration and usage of the DVR has disrupted traditional prime-time viewing patterns, although he added that the C3 ratings help offset some of those apparent live losses. (ABC’s overall average in the demo improves one-tenth of a ratings point upon application of C3.)
In the period spanning July 1 through Sept. 30, ABC’s broadcast and cable properties generated $4.88 billion in total revenue, up 2 percent versus FY Q4 in 2011. Cable (ESPN, ABC Family, et al.) accounted for $3.54 billion in quarterly revenue, while the broadcast side produced $1.35 billion.
Operating income at the media networks unit improved 7 percent to $1.57 billion—the vast majority ($1.38 billion) being generated by cable.
Growth at ESPN was credited to higher affiliate revenue, although that was offset somewhat by higher programming costs related to the net’s coverage of college football and Major League Baseball. Ad sales were flat, as higher rates were offset by a 3 percent ratings decline in the 18-49 demo and as demand for the ESPN product didn’t bounce back as quickly as was anticipated following the disruption of NBC’s Summer Olympics.
Q4 scatter at ESPN is “pacing down modestly,” said chief financial officer Jay Rasulo, before adding that ABC’s scatter pricing is now “pacing in the mid-teens above upfront rates” on a percentile basis.
For the quarter, operating income at the broadcasting unit decreased $9 million to $192 million, driven by a decline in ad sales revenues at ratings-challenged ABC. Higher equity losses at Hulu also had an impact.
Looking ahead, Iger said that programming costs at ESPN will be $170 million higher in the first three months of 2013 than they were in the year-ago period, due to an increase in Pac 12 and Big 12 rights fees.