Gasping for Airtime: Oxygen Chokes on ‘Glee Project’ Ratings

Repeats of 'America's Got Talent' drew bigger audiences

The premiere of The Glee Project was cause for little joy at the Oxygen network, as the much ballyhooed competition series fell flat in the ratings.

According to Nielsen live-plus-same-day ratings data, the first episode bowed to a mere 455,000 viewers Sunday at 9 p.m., well below early projections of 1 million. In comparison, an episode of the true-crime series Snapped (which was in its ninth season at the time) drew 423,000 viewers in the same time slot one year ago.

The Glee Project didn’t even put up Oxygen’s biggest numbers for the week, falling well short of two Friday night episodes of NBC’s America’s Got Talent, a Monday night installment of the homegrown Love Games, and a screening of the 1995 theatrical comedy Clueless.

Oxygen got the night started with a casting special dubbed The Glee Project: The Final 12. That introduction to the series regulars delivered 388,000 viewers, or 15 percent shy of the prior-year average in the Sunday 8 p.m. time slot.

Together the two bookends delivered a cumulative 843,000 viewers. When an encore of the first proper episode was added to the original rating, the two runs drew just 719,000 viewers.

While the demos were up significantly from the year-ago deliveries, they still fell well short of the network’s expectations. The Glee Project served up 211,000 adults 18-49, which accounted for 46 percent of the overall draw. Women 18-49 made up 32 percent of the total audience (144,000).

The demos for the casting special were largely similar to those delivered by the first episode.

What’s curious about the poor turnout for The Glee Project is that the pilot generally garnered positive reviews. While some speculated the premiere flagged because it bowed opposite the deciding game of the NBA Finals, it's hard to see much overlap between Gleeks and Dirk Nowitzki fans.

Whatever the cause, The Glee Project’s numbers were shockingly low, barely topping Oxygen’s most recent debut, the much-reviled World According to Paris. That candid look at the life of the spoiled, stupid, wholly unpleasant Hilton heiress still managed to draw 409,000 viewers on June 1, down just 11 percent from Sunday night’s draw. (After Hilton’s showcase fizzled, she immediately put the blame on Oxygen, erroneously claiming that the show didn’t roll out in its appointed time slot.)

Oxygen officials are hoping that the ratings will jump upon application of live-plus-same-day data, which adds a week of DVR playback to the original deliveries. Competition series are often time shifted; last year, Lifetime’s Project Runway saw its 18-49 ratings double upon application of its DVR viewership.

Unlike most scripted series, competition shows also often gain momentum over the course of a season. In 2004, Bravo debuted Project Runway to 219,000 adults 18-49; by season’s end, the demo had swelled 500 percent to 1.31 million.

In the meantime, one of the many advantages cable enjoys is the relative freedom to leverage the weekly schedule in order to squeeze the last drop of juice out of the rind. Including the first two installments of The Glee Project and the casting special, Oxygen will air the new entry no fewer than 31 times this week. Ten of these repurposed airings are set to take place in prime time.

Oxygen executives said that they remain behind the series “200 percent,” which suggests that the network will try to get greater mileage out of its marketing budget. (If nothing else, NBC could throw the cable channel a bone by offering a 15-second promo spot on, say, The Voice.)

Of course, the apathy could be a function of a cooling off at the flagship drama. Besides what it was able to achieve with the plum post-Super Bowl spot—the Feb. 6 installment of Glee averaged 26.8 million viewers—season two never reached the ratings highs of the series’ first year. Four of the final five episodes of Glee failed to top the 10 million viewer mark. 

More worrisome for Oxygen is the possibility that The Glee Project is perhaps too wholesome for its adopted audience, which tends to turn out for uglier fare like The Bad Girls Club. A showcase for women with advanced psychological problems, the pugnacious BGC was the first Oxygen program to top the 1 million viewer mark. Since 2009, the show has served up north of 2 million viewers on at least a dozen separate occasions.

While shows like BGC and Snapped brew up big deliveries, the kinder, gentler Oxygen fare tends to go begging. In April, the latest incarnation of Tori Spelling’s ongoing reality series bowed to just 341,000 viewers, before eventually settling to a weekly draw of 200,000.

Whatever the case, Oxygen sorely needs a hit. To date, each of the four major series introduced by the network at January’s Television Critics Association press tour have flopped.

In May, Oxygen lost 15 percent of its prime-time audience, with an average nightly draw of 363,000. Women 18-49 also were down 15 percent, although women 18-34 improved 16 percent to 92,000.

Thus far, Oxygen hasn’t felt a sting in its pocketbook. According to Kagan estimates, the network in 2010 took in $146.3 million in net ad revenue, a gain of 9 percent from the previous year’s take. With an average sub fee of 10 cents a head per month, the channel brings in approximately $91.2 million in affiliate revenue.

Under terms of its June 2010 pact with Twentieth Century Fox Television, Oxygen paid between $500,000 and $600,000 per episode for the off-net rights to Glee—quite a bargain, considering it costs Fox TV somewhere in the neighborhood of $3 million to produce each installment (44 to date).

In addition to the scripted series rights, the deal came loaded with a related 10-episode competition show developed by Glee creator Ryan Murphy. Murphy will serve as the final arbiter when it comes time to crown the eventual winner of The Glee Project. The grand prize is a seven-episode arc in season three of the Fox musical.