Broadcast networks should start putting up a sign: "Watch for falling ratings."
Fragmentation—the process of viewers diffusing across cable channels that cater to specific interests, as opposed to being forced to watch All in the Family en masse because it's the only thing on—has been happening for a long time, and the drop-off from DVR happened several years ago. That means there's no real excuse for the continued bleeding on broadcast TV.
But there are a few factors to consider, including a) a big chunk of viewers can't get broadcast without cable subscriptions, and cable subs are falling, and b) content is either targeting people who are aging out of what ad salespeople consider the dollar demo (18- to 49-year-olds), or for young people joining the demo who simply don't like it.
This is not a "There's Nothing Good on Broadcast" article. There's lots of good material on broadcast, including new stuff such as The Flash, Gracepoint, Stalker, Constantine and Black-ish. But when a show hits, which is not often, it hits softer than it did even last year.
It is a "Ratings Are Falling Overall" article, even if individual actors—CBS, to get specific—are seeing bumps over last year's performance. So here are the across-the-board averages in the 18-49 demo for premiere week:
NBC—3.0 vs. a 3.1 in 2013
CBS—2.4 vs. a 2.2 in 2013
ABC—2.2 vs. a 2.3 in 2013
Fox—2.0 vs. a 2.2 in 2013
And here's the lowdown on what's going on where:
The new guys: ABC had the two highest-rated premieres of the week—Black-ish, its smart new comedy (a 3.3), and ShondaLand juggernaut How to Get Away With Murder (an impressive 3.9). Unfortunately, Black-ish didn't do nearly as well in Week 2—a 2.5—but it's still outperforming most of the dial's other half-hour comedies.
We held back this article a few days to see how some of ABC's other gambles would do, specifically the 8 p.m. Tuesday comedy block—Manhattan Love Story and the much-maligned (if at least ambitious!) Karen Gillan vehicle Selfie. They did OK in relative terms—Selfie's competition was reality shows and NCIS, not a ton of overlap. But a 1.6 is nothing to brag about given that last year's The Goldbergs premiered to nearly double that number (a 3.1) in the same time slot. Manhattan Love Story logged a 1.5—also not great. Of course, they both outperformed Fox's legacy shows, Mindy and New Girl, which aired an hour later. Forever did OK, too—a 1.8, which is nothing to write home about but better than Lucky 7, Killer Women and Mind Games, which did a 1.0, a 0.7, and a 0.8, respectively. It also beat out Person of Interest, its main competitor in the slot.
The old guard: The most amazing thing about ABC's new schedule is that during premiere week, it sustained a 3.9 rating for two hours straight during "ShondaLand Thursdays," or, as we are wont to call it, Shonday. And even the elderly Grey's Anatomy pulled a respectable 3.1 to kick things off. Once Upon a Time managed a 3.4 for its premiere, largely because Disney's cross-pollination of media properties has reached new levels recently, and the company put Elsa from box office titan Frozen on the screen in live-action form. Modern Family still does great—a 3.9, a considerable force in the ratings for Black-ish, which airs right after. (And the retention for Black-ish was pretty good in Week 1, less so in Week 2).
The bottom line: ABC lost 1/10 of a ratings point year over year, but it has a stronger slate of new shows by quite a bit than it did this time in 2013. Its franchise series are aging—Grey's, Modern Family and Shield are all down year over year—and its new stuff isn't setting records even when it does well. But the network stands a chance now of having what a colleague calls a "reliable utility player" (Forever) in a competitive slot. As for Black-ish and the struggling comedies, well, we'll see. The only thing that really appears to be can't-miss at the moment is the Shonda Rhimes triple play. Nellie Andreeva at Deadline wisely observes that the network's new shows are either the benefit of a Nielsen glitch or, to quote Shakespeare, hella buzzy: They all adjust up when the more comprehensive L+SD numbers replace Fast National ratings, suggesting that lots of folks are DVRing the new series.
Why is no one talking about how well ABC does with shows for people of color? Seriously, am I on crazy pills? I've read nothing about this. The lesson the company seems to have drawn from Scandal is that black audiences in particular are underserved, and so they're responding, and it's paying off for them.
The new guys: The Mysteries of Laura lost half a ratings point between its sneak preview and its season premiere, which should tell you something about the series (word of mouth: not good). It fell only 1/10 of a ratings point in its second week, though, so perhaps the viewers generating that 1.4 ratings are into it. A to Z premieres tonight.
The old guard: The Voice continues to retain viewers—people are in this one for the long haul once they sign on at the beginning of the season—with a 3.5 rating for two Tuesdays running. That's way down from last year, though, when the show bowed to a killer 4.9 rating. So we're seeing quite a bit of falloff between seasons, and that's not good—The Voice is the major reason NBC won the demo over CBS last year.
The network "won" premiere week thanks to football, but it's premiered only two new shows at this point. The Blacklist is off season over season by less than half a ratings point (from a 3.8 to a 3.4, to be precise), which is fine. Unfortunately it then dipped to a 2.8 in its second frame, which is less fine. Chicago fire still outperforms everything at 10 p.m., probably also because of, yay, The Voice.
The bottom line: One singing competition is not a prime-time slate. Not even if you air it twice a week. NBC needs better development, and it needs better development really, really fast if it wants to stay on top.
Why is no one talking about this network's decision to premiere one show, count 'em, from its slate of high-profile pilot orders during September? That's, uh, not a lot of confidence.
The new guys: Scorpion is this network's big kahuna this year—the show bowed to a 3.2 and retained to the tune of a 3.0 in its second week. Oddly, the show's real trial by fire will come in its third frame, when we see whether viewers care that they don't get a big, splashy, ridiculous Justin Lin car chase. Madam Secretary is a dud; we'll see if the network hangs onto it for the full year (I hope not. Come on, Battle Creek!) but its premiere earned a 2 and it dropped to a 1.4 in its second episode. NCIS: New Orleans is trundling along with a 2.5 dropping to a 2.3—it may not be exciting, but it's solid. Stalker earned a 2.0 at 10 p.m. on Wednesday evening, putting it exactly even with last year's premiere of CSI. It still wins the time period handily, but it's so rare for series to gain viewers these days (and I appear to be pretty much the only journalist who liked it) that it's probably not going to be a fixture the way Criminal Minds and the CSI and NCIS franchises are.
The old guard: The Big Bang Theory is still a monster. The show opened to a 5.4, for crying out loud. And it retained its entire viewership into the second episode of its hour-long premiere. It lost some viewers in Week 2, but a 4.7 still makes it the best thing going on broadcast in a leisurely stroll, and it beat out the second half-hour of Fox's Gotham with a rerun. Person of Interest is shaky, especially with the fresher Forever on ABC doing well in the same spot.
The reality shows are a mixed bag—The Amazing Race is down to a 1.1 for its premiere this year (last year it got a 2); on the other hand, Survivor still does a 2.7! You can count on one hand the new dramas that got a rating that high. Some of the franchise stuff is getting a little long in tooth. NCIS: L.A. didn't even break a 2 with its season premiere, and The Blacklist and Castle both look primed to continue eating its lunch all season. And CSI could only manage a 1.3 for its Sunday premiere. But NCIS proper still does fine—that show brought in a 2.9 rating last week and fell only to a 2.6. The Good Wife continues to be the best show nobody watches—a 1.5 for the premiere and a 1.4 for the following week.
The bottom line: This is a building year for CBS. It keeps trying new versions of the crime formula that has worked so well for so long for the network, and some will inevitably take and some won't. It's not flailing like Fox, but it's obviously trying to figure out where it's going next. Scorpion seems to be a step in the right direction—it's not exactly a crime show, but it's not exactly not a crime show, either. Nothing bottomed out, but nothing set the world on fire, either—last year the network's Robin Williams drama The Crazy Ones premiered to a 4.0. (Then it fell off dramatically, but there was still initial interest.) That's higher than anything any network has this year, and it wasn't even the top dog in 2013—ABC's Agents of Shield pulled a 4.7.
Why is nobody talking about this network's Thursday schedule? Once football is gone, there will be huge upsets in the lineup, notably the sacrifice of Elementary to the great volcano god How to Get Away With Murder, both on at 10 p.m. Also, NBC's eye-rollers Bad Judge and A to Z are both on at 9. And between wheezingly low ratings for Two and a Half Men and the not-exactly-sure thing The McCarthys, 9 p.m. is going to be a fabulous time for any cable network with a mildly amusing comedy to steal share from broadcast.
The new guys: Whoo boy. Let's start with the good news: People seem to like Gotham. It started out with a 3.2 and fell not too far to a 2.8, so congratulations to Bruno Heller & Co. On the other hand, Utopia is hovering around a catatonic 0.8 rating—serves it right—and Red Band Society started off with a 1.3 and dropped to a 1.1. We'll get to see whether viewers are interested in checking out Gracepoint this evening (I'll update this post) and Mulaney on Sunday.
The old guard: The Simpsons will never die. Family Guy probably won't, either. The series got a 3.9 and a 4.5 respectively for their premieres, and The Simpsons included a supremely cool couch gag by Don Hertzfeldt. Brooklyn Nine-Nine gained viewers year over year. Did you hear that, everybody? Fox has a comedy that demo viewers like so much they're telling their friends about it. Bob's Burgers comes back this Sunday and will likely do fine. Elsewhere, it's less rosy: American Dad is dying, probably from some kind of sepsis associated with extensive, unapologetic, flagrant racism, and it will live out its remaining days on TBS when it is replaced by Seth MacFarlane's new cartoon, Bordertown.
Fox is having serious trouble with Sleepy Hollow, its big drama from last year, which appears to be getting devoured by CBS's Scorpion (it dropped from a 2.0 to a 1.7 in its second week). New Girl and The Mindy Project are both struggling and are unlikely to improve when two tonally similar comedies, Marry Me and About a Boy, show up on NBC near the end of the month. Hell's Kitchen isn't really making a dent on Wednesdays anymore—it's gone from a 1.5 to a 1.4 to a 1.3, and even The Mysteries of Laura is beating it out. The metrics are different for scripted, but it's still not doing well. Bones is barely pulling a 1.6.
The bottom line: Fox has good shows. They are more or less all on Sunday. It also has football and one drama people like and another one that I personally dig (Gracepoint) that is premiering Thursday evening. The slate is kind of a mess, but it has a solid foundation in young-skewing comedies. Mulaney probably won't scratch that itch the way Brooklyn Nine-Nine did (actually, the thing that looks most like a Fox comedy at the moment is Netflix's Bojack Horseman), but it might still do OK. Martin Short is good in it!
Why is nobody talking about how many mulligans Seth MacFarlane gets? The Cleveland Show, Dads, The Winner (seven episodes! Seriously, seven!). I promise Matt Groening has had at least one good idea for a television show since Futurama.