All eyes are on Rio—and NBC’s uneven ratings thus far for the Summer Olympics. Looking closer at the two-month broadcast network summer primetime television season prior to the opening ceremony on Aug. 5, it was a study in steady. The season yielded no new Under the Dome-like breakouts yet no mass exodus of viewers. And that type of relative status quo is not a bad thing for advertisers.
Broadcast programmers studying the shifting sands of the formerly rerun-dominated season see a few key trends, including a pronounced challenge for dramas in the summer and a lot of running room for games and competition.
For the months of June and July, the four major English-language broadcast networks—ABC, CBS, Fox and NBC—averaged 17.6 million viewers, down just 3.4% from the 18.1 they averaged for the same two months in 2015, according to Nielsen data. Viewership on CBS and Fox was down, while both ABC and NBC showed audience growth.
The biggest winner among the Big Four heading into the 17 days of Olympics coverage on NBC was ABC, which added three game shows to its returning Celebrity Family Feud and scored solid viewership which offset declines in some of its returning summer shows. ABC also had another big June and July with The Bachelorette.
ABC returned its hit game show series from last summer Celebrity Family Feud, hosted by Steve Harvey, and it averaged a June-July audience of 7.4 million viewers, making it the third most-watched summer broadcast network primetime show heading into the Olympics. It was, however, down almost 1 million viewers from last summer’s performance. Feud also averaged a solid for summer 1.47 18-49 demo rating, although down from a 2.0 last summer.
ABC's smartest move was to add updated versions of three other past game show hits. The $100,000 Pyramid, hosted by Michael Strahan, averaged 7 million viewers for the first two months of summer, ranking it the fourth most-watched summer broadcast series. The Match Game, hosted by Alec Baldwin, averaged 5.7 million viewers, ranking it ninth among broadcast summer shows, while To Tell the Truth, hosted by Anthony Anderson, pulled in 4.6 million viewers.
All three of the new game shows also averaged over a 1.0 18-49 demo rating, which is considered good for the summer. Pyramid averaged a 1.45, ranking it eighth in the demo, Match Game averaged a 1.22 to rank it 11th, while To Tell the Truth averaged a 1.04, ranking it 17th.
Billie Gold, VP and director of programming research at Dentsu Aegis’ Amplifi US, says ABC’s game show strategy was a boon for the network and for broadcast television viewership overall this summer.
“Those shows were very successful summer programming for ABC and the network has already renewed them for next summer,” she says. “Game shows seem to be making a comeback both during the regular season and during the summer. Putting so many on this summer was a smart move for ABC. The network had a tough regular season, so it needed to do well this summer and it did.”
Clearly the broadcast networks, including NBC, didn’t make much of an investment in new programming for this summer because of the Olympic disruption for 17 days in August. And the ones that did, saw those shows fall flat in the eyes of viewers.
New CBS dramedy BrainDead, for example, averaged just 3.3 million viewers and a 0.50 18-49 demo rating. Even some returning summer dramas like CBS’ Zoo, ABC’s Mistresses, Fox’s Wayward Pines, and NBC’s Aquarius, were virtually DOA.
Zoo, returning for a second summer, averaged 4.6 million viewers and a 0.79 demo rating, but that’s down from 7 million viewers and a 1.1 in the demo last summer. Mistresses, back for its fourth season, averaged just 2.9 million viewers and a 0.7 18-49 demo rating. Wayward Pines, back from last summer, averaged 2.3 million viewers and a 0.7 in the demo. While Aquarius, also back from last summer, averaged 1.7 million viewers and a 0.40.
Even Fox’s cooking competition series MasterChef, airing for the seventh summer, fell to 3.8 million viewers and a 1.17 demo rating, compared to 4.8 million viewers and a 1.51 demo rating last summer.
However, most of the hits of past summers still shined heading into the Olympics.
The most-watched broadcast network summer series during June and July was again NBC’s America’s Got Talent, now in its 11th season. The Simon Cowell-ified Talent averaged 11.5 million viewers on Tuesday nights, up from 10.6 million last summer, almost a million viewer per night audience increase. And Talent also averaged 10.1 million on Wednesday nights.
AGT also was the most-watched broadcast network series among viewers 18-49, averaging a 2.43 in the demo on Tuesday, and a 2.1 on Wednesday.
Also solid again this summer was ABC’s The Bachelorette, which averaged 6.9 million viewers and a 1.9 18-49 rating. Both those averages were basically flat compared to last summer, and during the summer, flat as opposed to down, is good.
The two other returning broadcast network successes for summer were NBC’s American Ninja Warrior and CBS’ Big Brother, which again aired on three nights each week.
Ninja Warrior averaged 6.2 million viewers and a 1.77 18-49 demo rating. The three Big Brothers averaged 5.96 million viewers on Wednesday, 5.91 million on Thursday and 5.65 million on Sunday, to all finish among the Top 10 most-watched broadcast network series in June and July.
Each Big Brother during those two summer months, also finished in the Top 10 among 18-49 viewers with the Wednesday edition averaging a 1.83, Thursday averaging a 1.81 and Sunday averaging a 1.69.
ABC won June and July in the 18-49 demo averaging 1.61, up slightly from a 1.58 last season, helped not only by the increased interest in the NBA Finals but also having those new game shows pulling in more viewers.
NBC was next in the 18-49 demo, averaging a 1.17 but it was helped by airing 16 Olympic trial events in primetime in July. NBC was up from a 1.15 last summer.
CBS edged out Fox for third place among viewers 18-49, averaging a 0.78 to Fox’s 0.67. CBS was down from a 0.85 last summer while Fox was down from a 0.88.
Overall the four broadcast networks average a 1.1 in the 18-49 demo for the two months, down 4.3% from the 1.15 they averaged for the same period last summer.
While this summer because of the Olympics was an anomaly, Amplifi’s Gold believes ABC establishing a game show foothold, combined with the continued success of longrunning non-scripted series like America’s Got Talent, American Ninja Warrior, The Bachelorette and Big Brother indicates a desire by viewers for lighter fare during the summer months.
Gold says broadcast networks that try to establish drama series in future summers may have trouble drawing audiences.
“Viewers seem to prefer lighter programming fare during the summer months,” Gold says. “Reality, variety and now game shows seem to draw in the most viewers. Most viewers don’t seem to want to make a summer-long commitment to watching a drama series.”
Gold adds that scripted series are much more expensive to produce, target older audiences, and are harder to draw in viewers.
“For a summer drama to initial tune-in and to possibly succeed in this environment it has to be based on a book that viewers have some familiarity with or be connected to a major producer like Steven Spielberg,” she says. “But even that’s no guarantee. Look at CBS with Under the Dome and Extant. A couple of good summers and they were off the air.”
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