A year ago, TV by the Numbers proposed a recalibration of expectations for what makes a hit on network television.
In an era of shrinking overnight ratings, we had to adjust our expectations downward a little and calibrate them to the audience for an average show.
Now, a year after that first study, it’s time to recalibrate again — and set the bar yet a little bit lower.
In the 2016-17 season, an average episode of a non-sports show on ABC, CBS, FOX or NBC drew a 1.2 same-day rating among adults 18-49. (Throw in live sports and it ticks up slightly to 1.3.)
That’s down a little from the Big 4 non-sports average of 1.3 in 2015-16. But despite that lower threshold, fewer series — 10 last season vs. 12 the year before — qualified as hits under our somewhat arbitrary but right-feeling benchmark of 50 percent above average. That means a 1.8 rating or higher. Here they are:
|Show||Network||Live + SD adults 18-49 rating||
% above Big 4 average
|The Big Bang Theory||CBS||3.1||158.3%|
|This Is Us||NBC||2.7||125%|
|The Voice (Monday)||NBC||2.4||100%|
|The Voice (Tuesday)||NBC||2.2||83.3%|
Source: The Nielsen Company.
“This Is Us” was the only first-year show to reach hit status, and “The Simpsons” — helped along greatly by several post-NFL airings in the fall — cracked the barrier after being a bit below it in 2015-16. The other eight are all repeat members of the list; previous qualifiers “NCIS” and “The Goldbergs” (1.7 each last season) are just below the line, while “Scandal” (1.6) and “Life in Pieces” (1.3) fell off a bit more.
The micro-universe of The CW averaged a 0.5 rating per episode last year, meaning only “The Flash” and its 1.1 rating qualify as a CW-level hit. “Supergirl” (0.7) was just a few hundredths of a point below the line.
The DVR (non) factor
If you factor in delayed viewing*, a couple more shows can get into hit territory.
(*We’re leaving aside for now the fact that public-facing DVR ratings aren’t really what determine a show’s fate. It’s commercial ratings, which are usually kept internal at networks and correlate fairly well with same-day numbers.)
The average Big 4 show grew by 0.4 points with three days of DVR playback and by 0.55 after a week. The plus-50 percent line then rises to 2.4 for Live +3 and 2.63 for Live +7 ratings.
“Designated Survivor,” which overperformed in delayed viewing last season, goes from just above average in the overnights (1.3) to a hit (2.4) after three days. After a week, “Scandal” and “How to Get Away with Murder” (2.6 each) join the hit club, but “Survivor” (2.5) drops out. “NCIS,” “Chicago Fire” and “The Goldbergs” are all just below hit status at 2.5 too.
The chart below shows the distribution of Big 4 series in each of the past two seasons, with hits, shows above the four-network average, those right at the average and those below it.
While there were slightly fewer hits on the Big 4 last season, the number of shows at or above the four-network average were about the same: 51 in 2016-17 vs. 52 the previous season.
The number of below-average shows was consistent as well — 73 series in 2016-17 came in below 1.2 last season, compared to 74 below the 2015-16 average.
The only real difference is the number of shows on the network average, which is probably just a statistical quirk. For the record, the 11 shows last season averaging a 1.2 were ABC’s “Fresh Off the Boat,” “Last Man Standing” and “Shark Tank”; CBS’ “Blue Bloods,” “Hawaii Five-0,” “Man with a Plan,” “NCIS: New Orleans,” “Scorpion” and “Superior Donuts”; FOX’s “Son of Zorn”; and NBC’s “Chicago Med.”
No one with more than a passing familiarity with TV ratings thinks that same-day numbers are the end of the conversation about a show anymore. But the fact remains that the majority of most show’s viewers come to it the night it airs, and that same-day ratings tend to track pretty well with the commercial ratings that are the basis of sales to advertisers.
That’s why we’re using them here and throughout the site — and why it’s important to know where the baseline is. Networks can (and will) talk about their shows having long tails and big digital audiences all they want, and we’d be foolish to deny that those things are meaningless. But the network business model has not yet shifted to the point where overnight ratings aren’t important.
The days of shows regularly reaching 18-49 ratings of 4.0 or more the night they air are gone. If you want to have intelligent discussions about what constitutes a strong show today, you have to know what’s successful today. We hope this helps.