As Linear Ratings Continue to Slide, Buyers Say Those Viewers Will ‘Never’ Return to TV

Cord-cutting and new OTT offerings continue linear's decadelong decline

Images of screens and cables
Over the last decade, broadcast ratings among adults 18-49 have fallen as much as 59%.
Illustration: Trent Joaquin; Sources: Getty Images

As usual, the broadcast networks entered the new TV season with the same glass-half-full optimism exhibited by baseball teams in spring training, where it’s all blue skies and high hopes until the season officially begins.

But the reality is that linear ratings will continue to plummet this season, as viewing habits continue to rapidly change as a result of cord-cutting and a glut of current and new streaming services. Last season, three out of five broadcasters saw double-digit declines in 18-49 ratings versus the previous season. NBC fell 27% to a 1.6, ABC dropped 20% to a 1.2 and The CW plummeted 33% to a 0.4; CBS and Fox were flat with a 1.5.

The downtrend trend is already apparent in the first three days of the new season, as only one new show debuted to a 1.0 rating or higher in the 18-49 demo. That was Fox’s Prodigal Son, which squeaked in with a 1.0 exactly.

Over the past decade, 18-49 ratings have plummeted between 43% and 59% across the big four broadcast networks. NBC dropped from a 2.8 rating in 2008-09 to a 1.6 in 2018-19 (43%), CBS fell from a 3.1 to a 1.5 (52%), ABC fell from a 2.9 to a 1.2 (59%) and Fox stumbled from a 3.6 to a 1.5 (58%).

Source: Nielsen

And while all of the major media companies wrapped strong TV upfronts—and networks point to delayed viewing numbers that frequently cause those live-plus-same-day numbers to double or triple in size—buyers are searching for other options.

“We’re forecasting that they will continue to decline,” said Maureen Bosetti, chief partnerships officer at Initiative. “We are continuing to look for new sources of supply to replace those ratings, because they’re never coming back to television. We all know that.”

“We are continuing to look for new sources of supply to replace those ratings, because they’re never coming back to television. We all know that.”
Maureen Bosetti, chief partnerships officer at Initiative

Peak TV continues to accelerate: According to FX’s research team this summer, we’re on track for 520 scripted series to air this year, breaking last year’s record of 496 and leaving audiences with more nonbroadcast options than ever before.

Meanwhile, connected TV usage continues to grow, as viewers gravitate to both ad-supported video on demand and subscription VOD options. With several new streaming services set to launch this season—including Apple TV+ and Disney+ in November, and WarnerMedia’s HBO Max and NBCUniversal’s Peacock next spring—buyers expect those ratings losses to continue.

“We’re aggressively moving money into OTT in order to find those audiences, wherever they’re consuming content,” said Bosetti. “It will continue to impact linear TV [ratings],” which is why media companies like Disney, WarnerMedia and NBCUniversal are rolling out their own streaming products.

As live linear ratings fall once again, “we will continue to see a shift, and delayed viewing will grow, more than ever before,” said Carrie Drinkwater, executive director of integrated investments at MullenLowe’s Mediahub.

Another buyer, speaking anonymously, criticized the broadcasters for not doing enough to keep viewers from fleeing their networks.

The new crop of shows are “the same old, same old,” said the buyer. “It’s not like the networks seem to be doing anything about it to improve things. And clients read all this stuff and think, why are we not spending more money on streaming services?”

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