A note to writers and producers of network TV shows: You may not want to put any big revelations or twists in the opening of an episode, particularly before the opening credits. Your audience might miss them.
TV by the Numbers analyzed minute-by-minute viewing data the some of the largest local markets* in the country collected by our partner Gracenote for four of television’s biggest series — “Empire,” “Arrow,” “The Big Bang Theory” and “Legends of Tomorrow” — that aired last week. “Empire” and “Big Bang” are the two top-rated shows on broadcast TV thus far this season, while both “Arrow” and “Legends of Tomorrow” had ratings spikes thanks to a crossover with The CW’s other superhero shows.
(*New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Dallas-Fort Worth, Philadelphia, Houston and Atlanta for “Empire and “Big Bang” and all those minus Chicago for the two CW shows.)
In aggregating data from those markets, a consistent pattern among all four shows is that the audience isn’t necessarily all there at the top of the hour. In fact, on average the audience in the first two minutes of the four shows was about 27 percent smaller than the audience at each show’s peak.
On the flip side, audiences are conditioned to expect important things to happen at the end of a TV episode, and it bears out in the viewing patterns here: On “Empire,” “Arrow” and “Big Bang,” peak viewing came in the final six minutes of running time. “Legends of Tomorrow” hit its high at minute 47 and nearly matched that level in its final few minutes.
Represented visually, the patterns show a fairly similar trend of peaks and valleys, with uneven but generally rising viewing through the course of the episode.
“Empire” and “Arrow” each have fairly steady builds, while there’s a noticeable dip midway through the “Big Bang” and “Legends” episodes, both of which then recover to rise to their peak. “Big Bang” has another dip right near the end of its running time, then a slight uptick, which encompasses the final commercial break and a brief closing-credits scene.
Whether that consistent viewing pattern is a result of decades of episodic TV teaching viewers to expect big moments near the end of a show, writers naturally wanting their show’s climax to be the result of everything that preceded it, or some of both, the result is clear: If fewer people are watching your show at the end than were at the beginning, something is probably wrong.