Here is a fact: CBS will finish the 2015-16 TV season in first place among broadcast networks in both adults 18-49 and total viewers.
That, of course, won’t stop the other networks from declaring their own sorts of victories, or CBS from making its victory seem greater than it is. The networks will be busy massaging the numbers in the way that looks the most favorable to them. Below is a handy guide to all the caveats and spin that will be emanating from the nets in the coming days. But first, the raw numbers (all are “most current” figures through May 22):
CBS, FOX and The CW are all flat with last year’s 18-49 ratings going into the final days left in the Nielsen-measured season. (Adults 18-49 numbers are unlikely to change; any small changes in viewers will be updated after the conclusion of the season on May 25.) ABC takes the biggest hit, falling 18 percent vs. its 2014-15 average, while NBC is down 12.5 percent.
Everybody lost some viewers, with FOX (down a scant 0.9 percent) doing the best job of retaining its audience. Having “Empire” for the whole season, along with “The X-Files” for part of it, helped FOX maintain its numbers, while CBS’ figure includes the Super Bowl.
And now, the TV by the Numbers guide to season-ending spin from the networks.
CBS caveat: Even without the NFL, we’re No. 1!
If you remove all NFL games (the “all” is key), CBS says, it’s still the season-end leader in 18-49. Which is true, because NBC’s “Sunday Night Football” is the top-rated series on broadcast, and taking that out deflates its numbers more than removing the Super Bowl and “Thursday Night Football” causes CBS’ ratings to fall.
That CBS didn’t rise year to year in a season when it aired the Super Bowl, however, suggests its regular programming declined a bit.
NBC caveat: Take out the Super Bowl and we’re tied with CBS!
Here’s where the “all NFL games” thing comes in. NBC notes that if you remove the Super Bowl — but not “Sunday Night Football” or “Thursday Night Football” — the two networks tied for the 18-49 lead.
No fair, says CBS: You have to take out every NFL game if you’re going to pull that card. Which, naturally, CBS played just last season when NBC aired the Super Bowl: The Eye noted it tied NBC for No. 1 in 2014-15 if the Super Bowl was removed. The line from CBS’ season-end release last year reads, “CBS is projected to finish within just 120,000 viewers of NBC in adults 18-49 in a year in which they had the Super Bowl.”
If you use that line of reasoning when another network has the Super Bowl, you can’t act hurt when another network uses it against you in your Super Bowl year.
FOX and CW caveats: Flat is the new up!
FOX’s “Empire” didn’t have the stratospheric ratings it did last season, but it was still the No. 1 non-NFL show on network TV by a good margin: Its 4.4 same-day average/6.7 Live +7 is 19 percent and 14 percent ahead of No. 2 “The Big Bang Theory” (3.7/5.9). Plus, it didn’t air at all in fall 2014, so that made for a big improvement season to season in its time period. “The X-Files” (3.1 same-day/4.8 L+7) also gave a short-term shot of improved ratings in its winter run.
The CW didn’t add any breakout shows, but its top show “The Flash” is on par with last season, and declines for “The Vampire Diaries” and “The Originals” were offset somewhat by a better bench in “Legends of Tomorrow” and even the canceled “Containment.”
ABC caveat: Sports? What’s sports?
ABC will tell you that if you strip out all sports programming, it ties CBS for No. 1 in adults 18-49 — both average 1.9, while NBC is at 1.8 and FOX at 1.7.
You may notice, however, that ABC’s non-sports average is higher than its overall number. The network airs sports too — Saturday college football games in the fall and prime-time NBA telecasts in the winter and spring. College football in particular draws decent ratings (especially for Saturdays), but the sports on its schedule actually drags down the average a bit.