Broadcast’s Incredible Shrinking Thursday

Ratings continue to slide on a crucial night for advertisers

Movie studios looking to prime the pump for their weekend releases may want to start looking for an alternative to broadcast TV. At the risk of trafficking in hyperbole, the Big Four has become a veritable ghost town on Thursday nights.

Season to  date, only two network series are averaging a 3.0 or better in the 18-49 demo on Thursdays—in fact, most of the shows slotted on the crucial night are hovering around the 1.0 mark.

According to Nielsen live-plus-same-day data, the night’s most successful show remains CBS’ The Big Bang Theory, which is averaging a massive 5.2 rating in its 8 p.m. time slot. ABC’s Scandal is the second-strongest performer (3.0), while Fox’s American Idol results show (2.7), Scandal lead-in Grey’s Anatomy (2.7) and CBS’ The Millers (2.7) fall short of the mark.

But for those four series, the Thursday night landscape is tumbleweed city. No fewer than four freshman shows have been canceled outright—ABC’s The Assets (0.7) and NBC’s Welcome to the Family (0.9), Sean Saves the World (1.0) and The Michael J. Fox Show (1.2)—and CBS’ The Crazy Ones (2.0) is almost certain to get shut out of the fall schedule.

Meanwhile, after averaging a 1.2 rating in the 9 p.m. slot, Fox’s new Greg Kinnear drama, Rake, was remanded to the living death that is Friday night. Lastly, Once Upon a Time in Wonderland (1.0) has no shot at earning a renewal—ABC’s promo for next week’s episode explicitly characterized it as the “series finale”—which brings the number of Thursday freshman flops to seven. (Last season, just three new Thursday night shows were canceled.)

Add the deep-sixed Fox competition series The X Factor (1.7) to the list along with perennial bubble shows Parenthood (1.3) and Community (1.1), and there’s a very real chance that only five current series will return to the Thursday night lineup in 2014-15.

All told, only two Thursday night newbies, The Millers and the CW costume drama, Reign, have been guaranteed a return engagement. 

Last night was particularly knotty, as CBS preempted its regular roster for NCAA basketball (2.3), while Grey’s (2.6) and Scandal (3.1) enjoyed their usual strong outings. (That said, the penultimate installment of Wonderland once again didn’t rise above a 1.0, thereby dragging ABC’s overall rating down to a 2.2.)

Fox put up middling numbers with Hell’s Kitchen (1.9) and the new half-hour Idol results show (1.9), while the premiere of the new Chris Meloni comedy, Surviving Jack, got off to a slow start with a 1.3 in the dollar demo. Two-thirds of NBC’s prime-time lineup was devoted to repeats of Hollywood Game Night; at 10 p.m., Parenthood was up one-tenth of a ratings point to a 1.4.

If all of this may come as a bit of a buzz kill for movie studios, retailers and other advertisers looking to stimulate sales before the weekend, things are looking up for next fall. CBS’ Thursday Night Football is almost certain to be a ratings juggernaut, and while it’ll cost as much as $600,000 for a 30-second in-game spot, reach won’t be an issue—or at least not during the eight weeks in which CBS will air its September and October games.

And for what it’s worth, cable’s impact on Thursday night broadcast ratings would appear to be negligible. While a handful of shows do better than a 1.0 every week (History’s Pawn Stars and Vikings, NFL Network’s Thursday Night Football and The NBA on TNT are the lone members of that very exclusive set), most Thursday cable series fall well short of the mark.

Instead, cable shines brightest on Sunday nights, when AMC’s The Walking Dead devours everything in its path, while Mondays (ESPN’s Monday Night Football), Tuesdays (FX’s Sons of Anarchy) and Wednesdays (A&E’s Duck Dynasty, FX’s American Horror Story) are also standouts.