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MBPT Spotlight: Contrary To Broadcast Network Spin, Viewers Are Not Flocking To November Sweeps Programming

Read the daily press releases sent out by the broadcast television networks and you’d think that this year’s November sweeps TV programming is producing gangbuster ratings. However, a comparison to last November’s sweeps ratings finds viewership at four of the five major English-language broadcast networks through the first three weeks of the current sweeps down, with the same number also down among the advertiser-desired 18-49 demo group.

Making it worse for the networks is that last year’s November sweeps was disrupted five days when Hurricane Sandy made landfall in the New York-New Jersey area on Oct. 29. Not only did many people lose power that night and for several days after, but many of the regularly scheduled first-run series on the broadcast networks were preempted for news specials about the storm.

The sweeps months, which also include February, May and July, are more important to the local TV affiliates of the networks because those are the periods through which they establish their ad sales rates for broadcast programming locally. The broadcast networks have traditionally programmed the month not only with all first-run shows, but with lots of specials aimed at drawing in casual TV viewers.

This time around, the networks are airing first-run programming, with few specials, during sweeps, and viewers are watching in lesser numbers than they have in the past. The slacking viewership seems to be hurting most of the networks’ freshman shows, which have been losing viewers since the sweeps began on Oct. 31.

CBS is the leader in nightly viewers this November, averaging 10.1 million per night, compared to 10.2 million last November. NBC is next in total viewers per night, averaging 8.5 million, and is the only network up from last November when it averaged 8.4 million. ABC is third in viewers, averaging 7.5 million per night, down from 7.9 million last November. Fox is averaging just 4.1 million, down from 6.4 million; however, last November included World Series games on Fox, which this year were completed before the start of the November sweeps period. The CW is averaging 1.6 million viewers per night, down from 1.7 million.

The differences among the 18-49 demo ratings are a bit larger than for the viewer numbers. NBC is the leader through the first three weeks of November, averaging a 2.7 18-49 demo rating, down from a 3.0 last year, a decline of 10%. CBS is next, averaging a 2.1 in the demo, compared to a 2.3 last November, a decrease of about 9%. ABC is next averaging a 1.9, down from a 2.2, a decline of about 14%. Fox is averaging a 1.4, down from a 2.2, but again a sizable portion of that is due to the World Series comparison. The CW is flat compared to last November, averaging a 0.7.

“I think the sweeps have lost some of their importance because of Nielsen using Local People Meters in the 25 largest TV markets,” says Brad Adgate, senior VP and director of research at Horizon Media. “It wasn’t too long ago that they were far more important, especially in November when new series were trying to get more viewers to establish themselves. I think it’s still important for a first year series to be on the schedule during the November sweeps because it’s an indication that the network has confidence in it. But the competitiveness among the networks to drive ratings during the sweeps is mostly gone.”

Billie Gold, VP and director of buying/programming research at Carat says the sweeps are still important to local affiliates outside of the largest markets, but adds that the broadcast networks seem to have given up doing big event programming and simply run first-run episodes during the sweeps months.

Everybody’s Getting Into the Act
“I think the only acknowledgment the networks still make that the sweeps months are here is they still put on all original programming,” Gold says. “I think that major sweeps events and specials don’t warrant the cost any more because people are just not watching in the numbers they used to. There is also major competition from first-run cable now, which never used to exist when the sweeps months were created. Cable used to save its marquee programs for summer when the networks slept, but now they have no fear programming shows during the sweeps months.”

Gold says the networks could be spending so much money on development and creating more expensive pilots than ever before that “their pockets aren’t deep enough to support the expensive-to-produce miniseries and other big star events.”

She says variety specials, which once were big events during the sweeps, don’t resonate with audiences anymore and even guest stars don’t produce major bumps in the ratings. CBS has had a bunch of guest stars in its November sweeps series including Bob Newhart, Ed Asner, Brad Garrett, Josh Groban, Lea Thompson, Lynda Carter, Octavia Spencer, Bryan Cranston, Carol Burnett and Nathan Lane to name a few, but none really knocked the ratings through the roof.

The leaders through the first three weeks of the November sweeps in viewers among the freshman series are NBC’s The Blacklist, averaging 10.5 million viewers; CBS’ The Millers, averaging 10.4 million; CBS’ The Crazy Ones, at 8.2 million; Fox’s Sleepy Hollow, averaging 7.1 million viewers; and ABC’s Marvel’s Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D., averaging 6.9 million. Fox’s Almost Human premiered this week with two episodes and is averaging 8 million viewers.

In the 18-49 demo, The Blacklist is the leader among the freshman series during sweeps, averaging a 2.9. Almost Human is next with a 2.7. Sleepy Hollow is averaging a 2.5, The Millers a 2.4 and Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. a 2.3. CBS’ Mom and The Crazy Ones are both averaging a 2.0 in the demo but the other 16 freshman series are averaging a 1.9 or lower during the sweeps.

Things Aren’t Looking Up

The Blacklist was averaging 11.3 million viewers per night and a 3.3 demo rating entering the sweeps month, so it is down in both categories. The Millers was averaging 12 million viewers and a 3.1 demo rating, so it is also down during the sweeps, as is The Crazy Ones, down from 11 million and a 2.8. Sleepy Hollow is averaging about the same 7.1 million viewers and 2.5 demo rating during the sweeps as it was season-to date before the sweeps month began.

While those freshman series are among the most watched in primetime and can absorb at least some ratings declines, there are lots of other shows for which sweeps week numbers have just about decimated their chances for survival.

NBC’s Dracula premiered the week before the start of the sweeps to an audience of 5.3 million and an 18-49 demo rating of 1.8. During the sweeps it is averaging 3.1 million viewers and a 1.1 18-49 demo rating. CBS’ Hostages was averaging 5.8 million viewers and a 1.4 demo rating entering the sweeps. During the sweeps it is averaging 4.6 million viewers and a 1.1 demo rating.

The broadcast networks’ practice of giving full-season orders to sparsely watched series has grown, and after the sweeps showing by some of those shows, they may have some regrets. For example, ABC gave a full-season order to Trophy Wife. The series was averaging 4.8 million and a 1.5 demo rating prior to the start of the sweeps. In November it has averaged 3.7 million and a 1.2 in the demo. NBC gave The Michael J. Fox Show a full-season order before the season started. Entering the sweeps it was averaging 5.3 million viewers and a 1.6 demo rating. During the sweeps it is averaging 3.1 million and a 1.0 demo rating.

Comparing this November sweeps to last November, most broadcast series are down in both viewers and 18-49 demo ratings. A few that aren’t, at least in terms of viewer totals are ABC’s Scandal and Castle, and CBS’ NCIS, Blue Bloods and The Good Wife. Scandal is averaging 9 million viewers in this year’s sweeps compared to 6.1 million last November. Castle is averaging 10.6 million viewers during this year’s sweeps compared to 10.2 million last year. NCIS is averaging 19.4 million compared to 18 million, Blue Bloods is averaging 11.3 million vs. 11.1 and The Good Wife is averaging 10.1 million compared to 9.5 million.

In the 18-49 demo, Scandal is averaging a 2.9 rating compared to a 1.9 last November.

But among the freshman series that premiered this fall, there’s perhaps a handful with a legitimate chance of being longtime successes in broadcast primetime. Unfortunately, sweeps has done very little positive in terms of generating viewers for the rookies.

Carat’s Gold says she’s not sure what the broadcast networks can do to rejuvenate viewer interest in the sweeps months. “With the ever-growing number of cable networks investing in originals and online streaming, and with VOD and DVRs making it easier for viewers to catch up with cable series they may have missed, the broadcast networks’ troubles are likely going to continue during sweeps months and pretty much year-round.”

She adds that while there are still a dozen or so series that draw large audiences to broadcast primetime, many of them are aging and not enough new series are posting substitute-worthy numbers. “Eventually, NCIS and The Big Bang Theory and other popular series are going to die out and there doesn’t seem to be enough replacement series that resonate with viewers."