How NBC Won the 2017-18 Season by Such a Wide Margin

Pacing 47 percent ahead of CBS, ABC and Fox, the network can thank the Super Bowl, the Olympics and, yes, 'This Is Us.'
From left to right: Mike Ehrmann, Anacleto Rapping, Sean M. Haffey, all Getty Images
Super Bowl winner Nick Foles, a 'This Is Us'-inspired crock pot and Olympian Chloe Kim

Naysayers may have been quick to jump on continued NFL ratings fatigue and smaller turnout for the Winter Olympics earlier in the season, but there likely aren't many "nays" coming out of NBC this week.

The network just wrapped one of the most boast-worthy runs in broadcast memory, ranking as the highest-rated network for the fourth time in five seasons and coming within a hair of CBS' ever-dependable hold on total viewers. But it's NBC's showing among adults 18-49 that is the most distinguished, if only for its significant margin of victory over the evenly matched CBS, ABC and Fox. NBC's average primetime showing in the key demo, a 2.2 rating, is a daunting 47 percent ahead of the rest of the pack and their shared 1.5 rating. That's the biggest advantage during a traditional broadcast season for any network in the 31-year history of Nielsen Media's current people-meter sample.

So how does a network perform so much better? An almost unprecedented roster of sports and a large stable of steady entertainment players in the face of linear fatigue. Sure, a big hit like This Is Us helps —  see the drama's Super Bowl Crock Pot reveal setting 10-year scripted highs — but a bona fide scripted phenomenon does not a No. 1 network make. Roseanne's comparatively scant hours on air did little to move the overall dial for ABC, despite the series surging to the top slot in all of TV. No single show, be it This Is Us or The Big Bang Theory, amounts to much stacked up against the one-two punch of the Super Bowl and two weeks' worth of Olympic Games.

Those two marquee events coupled with the steady drip of Sunday Night Football, This Us, The Voice, Will & Grace and one two three Chicago dramas helped NBC lock in its win. Each of its competitors, relegated to envying NBC's This Is Us one year ago, at least managed something NBC did not — a massive freshman performer.

ABC had both Roseanne and surprise hit The Good Doctor, while CBS launched the immensely successful Big Bang companion Young Sheldon. Fox saw Ryan Murphy's 911 supplant Empire as its highest-rated series. Each of those landed in the top 10 across broadcast. Even the CW had Black Lightning, its biggest launch in three years. And in today's broadcast ecosystem, those hits go a long way with morale — especially when everyone is facing linear declines.

"The difference between No. 1 and No. 4 is still pretty minimal in terms of raw ratings points" points out David Campanelli, director of National TV for Horizon Media. "The world is different, and we don''t think about things the way we used to in terms of 'Who's No. 1?' and 'Who's going to get the lion's share of our dollars?'"

Changes between 2016-17 and 2017-18 are, in many instances, dramatic. It's worth noting that, even with its big events, NBC only improved by 5 percent in the key demo. Fox tumbled the most, though if you ignore Fox's 2017 inflation from the Super Bowl, CBS has the biggest declines. The network shed 17 percent among adults 18-49, year over year, while sports-free ABC remained reasonably steady.

Overall audiences, for better or worse, seem to be subject to less fluctuation. But as the networks circulated talking points and bragging rights Tuesday afternoon, there was one interesting claim. NBC, home of summer standby America's Got Talent, posits that it is "well positioned" to win the 52-week among both adults 18-49 and total viewers. The latter would be a first since 2002, so check back in September to see if it holds.

Adults 18-49
NBC — 2.2 rating (up 5 percent)
CBS — 1.5 rating (down 17 percent)
ABC — 1.5 rating (down 6 percent)
FOX — 1.5 rating (down 21 percent)*
CW — 0.6 rating (down 14 percent)

Total Viewers
CBS — 9.0 million viewers (down 7 percent)
NBC — 8.9 million viewers (up 9 percent)
ABC — 6.1 million viewers (down 2 percent)
FOX — 4.9 million viewers (down 16 percent)
CW — 1.7 million viewers (down 5 percent)

*Denotes comparison to a year having the Super Bowl.

All ratings "most current" tallies from Nielsen Media, a combination of latest live-plus-seven, live-plus-three and live-plus-same day ratings