Skip to main content

Upfronts 2016: Viewership Changes Giving Freshman Shows Reprieve

Complete Coverage: Upfronts 2016

It’s harder than ever to be a broadcast network programmer and come up with new shows each season that can be clearly identified as hits. As more and more viewers watch more and more primetime programming via delayed viewing, including shows new to the networks’ schedules, the lines of defining which should be renewed or canceled have become blurred.

That’s why this season, unlike in past years when new shows were axed quickly after only a handful of episodes because of low live-plus-same day viewing, trigger fingers have become less itchy. Many middling performers, and even some with very low viewership, have managed to stay in the picture.

“A 2.0 rating in the 18-49 demo now makes a new show or even a veteran show in broadcast primetime a success, even though in past years shows with ratings that low would be canceled,” says Billie Gold, VP, director of programming research at Amplifi U.S.

“The networks now seem to downplay the ratings and talk more about how a new show is performing better in the time period than the show that used to air there,” Gold says. “And they talk about which show or network won the night versus the other networks, often ignoring the actual low ratings numbers.”

Brian Hughes, senior VP, head of audience analysis practice, Magna Global, agrees that it is “getting harder and harder to define what success is” for new shows. He adds, “There used to be a clear ratings cut-off under which a show was sure to be axed. But that hasn’t been the case for some time.”

Last season there were six freshman shows that at this point in the season were averaging a 2.0 18-49 demo rating or better among viewers watching live-plus-same-day. They included Fox’s Empire (5.0), CBS’ The Odd Couple (2.5); ABC’s How to Get Away with Murder (2.3); CBS’ NCIS: New Orleans (2.2); CBS’ Scorpion (2.1); and ABC’s Black-ish (2.1). All were renewed.

This season there are only four freshman shows averaging better than a 2.0 in the 18-49 demo in live-plus-same-day viewing. They include Fox drama reboot The X-Files with a 3.1, NBC’s Little Big Shots, the kids’ talent show hosted by Steve Harvey (2.2), NBC drama Blindspot (2.1) and CBS sitcom Life in Pieces (2.0). All but Life in Pieces have been renewed.

Ratings do improve if you look at live-plus-three-day ratings, although they are still not a high as they were just a few years ago. In live-plus-three-day viewing, the number of freshman shows averaging more than a 2.0 this season jumps to 12.

Making that list are ABC drama Quantico, which rises from a 1.3 to a 2.6. NBC drama Chicago Med increases from a 1.7 to a 2.4; CBS drama Supergirl from a 1.7 to a 2.3; Fox drama Lucifer (1.6 to 2.4); CBS drama Limitless (1.4 to 2.2); NBC comedy Superstore (1.6 to 2.0); and NBC dramas Heroes Reborn (1.3 to 2.0) and Shades of Gray (1.2 to 2.1). Five of those freshman shows have been renewed so far.

Last season there were five freshman shows that at this point were averaging more than 10 million viewers watching live-plus-same day. They included NCIS: New Orleans (15.4 million); Empire (12.7 million); Madam Secretary (12.1 million); Scorpion (10.2 million) and The OddCouple (10.2 million). CSI: Cyber just missed, averaging 9.1 million. All were renewed.

This season there is just one new show that has averaged more than 10 million viewers in live-plus-same-day mode: LittleBig Shots. It has averaged 12.5 million viewers. The X-Files is close, averaging 9.4 million.

If you look at live-plus-three day ratings, six of this season’s new shows top 10 million in viewers and the rest average more than 9 million viewers. And in live plus-seven day viewing, nine of 10 average more than 10 million viewers.

Related: TiVo Study: NBC the Least Time-Shifted Broadcast Net

But only a small percentage of upfront ad deals are being done based on a seven-day ratings currency and there are only certain marketers, even if they are offered discounts to buy based on the longer viewing period, who want to have their ads seen seven days after the initial spot runs.

“Some of the shows being renewed amaze me and I just shake my head, but this is the result of delayed viewing, not only via DVR and VOD but also on OTT services and on mobile,” Gold says, adding that it becomes more of a challenge when agencies have to buy ad time in these shows.

Gold adds that social media buzz also plays a much larger role in whether a new show is renewed and that can result in a show with much less viewership being brought back. (Cross-platform measurement, which Nielsen and comScore are finally bringing to market this year, may help, depending on who you ask.)

Today networks are pushing to do more deals based on live-plus-seven day ratings and are also renewing new shows more based on longer delayed viewing numbers. One freshman show among this year’s crop that is a prime example of that is the ABC drama Quantico,which has already been renewed. The show averages a 1.3 18-49 demo in live-plus same day ratings but rises to a 2.9 in live plus seven day viewing. Another ABC freshman drama The Catch has averaged a 1.1 demo rating in live plus same day, but rises to a 2.1 in live plus seven.

Gold believes there is another reason why the broadcast networks are bringing back more ratings-challenged freshman shows. Many of those shows are produced by studios under the same corporate parent as the networks or the networks are allowed to acquire stakes in new shows from outside studios. That allows them to monetize those shows in syndication (either broadcast or SVOD) and, particularly, when they sell the rights to those shows abroad.

Gold says in many instances, shows that do not do particularly well on U.S. TV can draw solid viewership in other countries.

“Most of the shows that are renewed today, especially the ones with lower viewership, are also ones that the networks have an ownership stake in,” Gold says. “Many of them after airing on broadcast have their off-network rights sold to OTT services like Hulu, Netflix or Amazon or are sold abroad.”

This season, Fox has already renewed freshman series Scream Queens, which averaged just 2.8 million viewers and a 1.1 18-49 demo rating in live-plus-same-day. It premiered with a low 4 million viewers despite massive promotion and averaged a 1.7 demo rating. A few months later, the season finale averaged 2.5 million viewers and a 0.9 demo rating, a major decline in audience.

Yes, the full-season numbers for Scream Queens rose to 4.1 million and a 1.8 demo rating in live-plus-three-day, but on a Big Four broadcast network, even those are not the kind of numbers that should lead to renewal. And yet, they did.

Not coincidentally, Scream Queens is produced by 20th Century Fox Television. And it was also sold abroad in its first season and aired in the U.K., Ireland, Australia and Canada. To cancel it in the U.S. would cut off the revenue stream abroad, or even perhaps a future revenue stream on an OTT service.

Case in point of a low rated TV show that has a life after broadcast—The Mindy Project. On Fox last season before it was canceled, it averaged just 2.2 million viewers and a 0.96 18-49 rating for the season. Paltry numbers for a broadcast network primetime show and Fox cancelled it after three seasons. However, Hulu picked it up.

Related: At Midseason, Streaming 'Mindy' Projects as Keeper

Fox did not benefit by keeping it on for three years, since it did not own the rights, but as soon as the network cut it lose, Hulu acquired the rights to Mindy from Universal Television.

Hughes agrees that “aftermarket value is a major consideration” when determining the fate of new shows these days. “Which is why we’ve seen the broadcast networks working so closely with their own studios.”

But Hughes believes other considerations may come into play, such as a show’s online presence, particularly on social media. “Is there a loyal fan base marketers would like to speak to? Are there opportunities to reach them on multiple fronts?”

Hughes says his unit worked with research company Canvs to build a new series renewal model. “The idea is to pick which new shows are most likely to be renewed, without audience size being a factor,” Hughes says. “Rather than using ratings in the model, we used a series of characteristics describing the show and emotional signals on social media. For the current season, four of our top five picks have been renewed, including Scream Queens.”

As for broadcast network programmers, Hughes says when it comes to determining which new shows get put on the schedule, “the current means of evaluating the merits of a new series is outdated.”

Hughes says traditional focus groups no longer work and he praises Amazon’s method of putting pilots online for viewer evaluation before ordering anything to series. “That,” he says, “feels more appropriate in this day and age.”

As the May broadcast upfront week approaches, the networks will be revealing more of the freshman shows they will be bringing back or cancelling. While a handful of the more watched ones have already been renewed, there is a large bunch of not-so-watches ones that could be renewed – primarily because networks can mass cancel and need to keep some time periods on the schedule filled.

CBS has not yet announced the fates of its freshman series, which, as a whole have performed better than most of the other networks’ new shows, including several NBC freshman shows that were renewed.

Life in Pieces is averaging 8.8 million viewers that jumps to 9.8 million in live-plus-three and to 10.7 million in live-plus seven. In the 18-49 demo it is averaging a 2.0 in live-plus-same-day, a 2.6 in live-plus-three and a 2.7 in live-plus-seven.

Supergirl is averaging 7.8 million viewers which increases to 9.7 million in live-plus-three and 10.3 million in live-plus-seven. Its 18-49 numbers are a bit more challenging and that’s where CBS may be having some doubt. Supergirl is averaging a 1.7 in live-plus-same-day, a 2.3 in live-plus-three and a 2.5 in live-plus-seven.

The other CBS freshman dramas, Code Black, Criminal Minds: BeyondBorders and Limitless are all averaging over 7 million live-plus-same-day viewers that jump to more than 10 million viewers in live-plus-seven.

However their 18-49 numbers are relatively low. In live-plus-same-day Code Black is averaging a 1.3 while Limitless and Beyond Borders are averaging a 1.4. They all jump past a 2.0 in live-plus-seven.

Fox already renewed freshman drama Rosewood with low numbers – 5 million viewers and a 1.4 18-49 rating, but that series has been an effective lead-in for Empire. Although it seems Empire’s audience tunes in to the second half hour of Rosewood, when that series’ number have taken a big jump up.

One big decision Fox will have to make is one two freshman sitcoms that have produced low ratings but feature known stars. Grandfathered, starring John Stamos, has averaged 2.9 million viewers and a 0.96 18-49 demo rating, while The Grinder, featuring Rob Lowe, has averaged 2.3 million viewers and a 0.79 demo rating.

In addition to Little Big Shots, which with The X-Files can perhaps be described as the only two breakout hits of this season among new broadcast shows, NBC is also returning two other freshman series that have performed well in Blindspot and Chicago Med.Blindspot has averaged a 2.0 18-49 demo rating, while Chicago Med has averaged a 1.7.

A dozen other first-year shows have been taken off the air already and will not be back, but as part of a growing pattern, the networks have not made any announcements about them.

“New shows are no longer officially cancelled,” says Amplifi’s Gold. “The networks just pull them off the air and they fade away.”