Before talking about the state of TV ratings today, let’s look at the state of TV ratings in the not-so-very-distant past.
In its five seasons on the air, NBC’s “Chuck” was the poster child for shows perpetually on the bubble for cancellation. In its first season (which was also its highest-rated), it was fairly close to the average for the Big 4 networks, per Spotted Ratings. Every subsequent season, however, was 20 percent or more below that average, making each renewal that much more of a nail-biter for the show.
And here’s how times have changed: Prior to the shortened final season, which aired on Fridays, “Chuck” never averaged below a 1.7 in adults 18-49. That kind of number today* is a virtual guarantee of renewal.
(*A 1.0 in adults 18-49 equals about 1.27 million people in that age group; thus a 1.7 represents about 2.16 million people. Advertisers on network primetime pay a premium to reach those viewers — and the adults 18-34 subset — which in turn drives most decisions to renew or cancel shows.)
Of course, a 1.7 even a few years ago is not equal to a 1.7 now. But it’s time to think about what that means in the context of TV ratings today. Put simply, what makes a hit these days?
The big hits are pretty easy to recognize: “Empire” (4.4 same-day rating last season) is one. So is “The Big Bang Theory” (3.7) And, well, that’s about it. Aside from “The X-Files” (3.2), which won’t be on in 2016-17, they were the only two non-sports shows on the broadcast networks to average better than a 3.0 in adults 18-49 last season.
The new TV math
Let’s bring the numbers into it.
Last season, all non-sports shows on ABC, CBS, FOX and NBC averaged a 1.3 in adults 18-49, the primary currency of the TV business. Include sports and the average rises slightly to a 1.5.
That means “Code Black,” “Criminal Minds: Beyond Borders,” “The Muppets” and “NCIS: Los Angeles” were all statistically average shows. Few people would call any of those a hit. “NCIS: LA” once qualified, and it has certainly had a long and successful run, but its best Nielsen days are gone.
A hit has to be somewhere above that 1.3 line, because by definition hits are above-average performers. It also implies some scarcity — if everything’s a hit, then nothing really is, so the threshold has to be reasonably high. Even if the numerical standard for a hit is falling, the number of shows should remain fairly low.
Let’s say (somewhat arbitrarily) that a hit series draws ratings 50 percent above average — using last season as a baseline, 50 percent above average is a 1.95 rating. A dozen returning shows (again excluding sports) reached that threshold in 2015-16:
“Empire” (4.4 rating in 2015-16)
“The Big Bang Theory” (3.7)
“The Voice” (2.6)
“Modern Family” (2.6)
“The Bachelor” (2.4)
“Grey’s Anatomy” (2.2)
“Little Big Shots” (2.1)
“The Goldbergs” (2.0)
“Life in Pieces” (2.0)
“How to Get Away with Murder” and “The Middle” (1.9 each) are just outside the 50 percent-above-average threshold. Some of these may fall out of hit range this season, and a new show or two may take their place.
But … DVR ratings!
The average Big 4 series gains half a point in adults 18-49 with three days of DVR viewing factored in, rising to 1.8. Over a full week of delayed viewing, it rises to 1.9. The bar for a hit thus rises to 2.7 and 2.85 with DVR, which … scarcely changes anything at all.
“How to Get Away with Murder” (3.2 in Live +3, 3.5 Live +7), “Blindspot”* (3.0, 3.3) and “Criminal Minds” (2.7, 3.0), which are strong DVR performers, move into hit range when delayed viewing factored in. “Life in Pieces,” which doesn’t grow as much, falls out: Its three- and seven-day ratings are 2.5 and 2.7.
(*”Blindspot” is moving to the Wednesday leadoff spot this season after airing behind “The Voice” last year and thus is fairly likely to incur a good-sized drop.)
Same-day numbers don’t tell the whole story of a show’s ratings anymore, but as we’ve said before, they are reliable as predictors of where shows stand relative to one another. Bigger shows in overnight ratings remain that way when people catch up after they air, and shows in the middle of the pack after their initial broadcast rarely break into the upper reaches of the rankings.
What about The CW?
No CW series so much as sniffed a 1.95 same-day rating in 2015-16, so a “hit” within the self-contained world of the network isn’t really a hit in the larger broadcast landscape.
The CW as a whole averaged a 0.6 last season, making the average-plus-50 percent threshold a 0.9. Two shows, then, qualify as CW hits — “The Flash” (1.4) and “Arrow” (0.9). “Legends of Tomorrow” (0.8) is slightly off the pace.
That 1.7 for “Chuck” in 2010-11 translates to roughly a 0.9 in today’s ratings climate — a very marginal number. Only three scripted shows on the Big 4 networks (“American Crime,” “Grimm” and “Sleepy Hollow”) were renewed last season with same-day ratings at or below that level.
But an actual 1.7 today is a pretty safe rating — it’s about 31 percent above the Big 4 average for 2015-16, and obviously the farther above average a show gets the safer it is. Aside from “American Idol,” which pre-announced its ending, every show at or above that level last season is back this season.
Given the history of TV ratings, it’s weird, and maybe even a little disconcerting, to think that a broadcast show whose rating starts with 1 can be considered on the threshold of being a hit. But the cold truth is it’s where broadcast TV is now. We might as well start adjusting to that reality.