Broadcast premiere week has begun and the entertainment media is already making predictions based on opening night viewership as to which new shows are likely to be hits. However, history says that’s foolish and the conclusions most times prove not to be accurate.
Yes, if a freshman show premieres with low viewership, it is almost always doomed to cancellation at some point in its first season. However, new shows that premiere with high ratings also many times have lost that viewership either in consistent chunks every week or in one large swoop during week 2.
A prime example – drama State of Affairs on NBC last season. The show premiered with a C3 rating in the 18-49 advertiser-desired demo of 2.4, but a few months later episodes had fallen to a 1.0 and was eventually pulled from the schedule and cancelled. Another new NBC show last fall, Marry Me, premiered with a 2.2 C3 18-49 rating, but two months later that rating had fallen to a 1.2, according to Nielsen data. On CBS, new drama Stalker premiered with a C3 demo rating of 2.3 but by December episodes were pulling in only a 1.8.
There were also some freshman series that premiered last fall with low C3 18-49 demo ratings and just fell lower. Sitcom Selfie on ABC opened with a 1.6 18-49 rating in C3 and two months later had fallen to a 1.0. Manhattan Love Story opened with a 1.3 and a month later was down to a 0.8 in C3 18-49.
On Fox, Mulaney opened with a 1.0 C3 18-49 rating and by the end of the fourth quarter was down to a 0.4. Gracepoint opened with a 1.4 and two months later was down to a 0.9. On NBC, Bad Judge premiered with a 1.5 in early October and by mid-December was doing a 1.1. A to Z premiered with a 1.3 C3 rating and by mid-December episodes were averaging a 0.9.
Of course a really strong start enables new shows to weather the inevitable dwindling of viewers during the course of a season. Last fall new ABC drama How to Get Away With Murder was the most-watched freshman show premiere among adults 18-49, scoring a C3 rating of 4.5. Two months later episodes were still doing a solid 3.7 in the demo.
In fact, the five highest rated new shows last fall in C3 18-49 in their premiere episodes were all renewed. While How to Get Away With Murder did best during fourth quarter in retaining its premiere audience, the other four shows did enough to keep them on the air and ultimately be renewed.
Those shows include Fox drama Gotham (4.2), ABC sitcom Black-ish (3.8), CBS drama Scorpion (3.5) and CBS drama NCIS: New Orleans (2.7). But even those shows lost a big chunk of viewers over their first few months on the air. After two months, Gotham was pulling in a 2.6 in the demo, Black-ish a 2.7, Scorpion a 2.1 and NCIS: New Orleans a 2.0.
How did the returning shows last fall do in their premiere episodes in 18-49 C3? The highest-rated returning show last fall was CBS sitcom The Big Bang Theory, recording a 5.4 C3 rating in the demo for its premiere episode. ABC drama Scandal scored a 4.2, while ABC sitcom Modern Family, Fox animated comedy The Simpsons and NBC’s The Voice all recorded 4.0 18-49 demo ratings in their premieres.
Other series that opened strong last fall included NBC drama The Blacklist (3.6), ABC dramas Once Upon a Time (3.4) and Grey’s Anatomy (3.1), and CBS dramas Criminal Minds (3.1) and NCIS (3.0). Each of those are considered staples for their respective networks.
Billie Gold, VP, director of Amplifi, a division of Dentsu/Aegis, says no one on the agency side gets too excited about the possibilities of a new series based on its premiere episode ratings and that determinations for success need to be made weeks into a series being on the air.
However, she agrees that “if a new broadcast TV show doesn’t start with a big premiere, it’s pretty much dead on arrival,” while if a show does draw a strong premiere audience “there is a much greater chance for survival.”
But Gold adds that for most shows, the ratings from premiere to last episode of the season usually fall in the vicinity of 15%-30%. And she also says that there are other factors in determining whether a show is renewed, like how it does compared to other shows on the network.
She cites Fox’s Gotham which opened with a 4.2 18-49 C3 rating in its premiere but ended the season averaging a 2.2. “Gotham netted out way lower than its premiere by the end of the season, but it was still better in the demo than most of Fox’s other offerings,” Gold says. “Still, it ended up nowhere near the hit status the media was giving it after its premiere numbers.”
With the vast amount of TV programming available today, both linear and digital, and all the fragmented viewing, Gold says networks are fortunate if their shows can at least get a strong premiere tune-in.
“A big premiere number is all the networks can ask for,” Gold says. “At least that means a show has a chance of survival.”
Just don’t project it to be a hit after one episode.
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