4 Ratings Lessons from the 2016-17 Broadcast TV Season

NBC logs another win with adults 18-49, while sports remain invaluable to all and a few series — 'This Is Us,' 'The Bachelor' — make a big impression.
Courtesy of ABC; Getty Images; Courtesy of NBC

NBC finished another season as the No. 1 network among adults 18-49 on Wednesday night, its third such victory in the last four years.

Ratings gaps between broadcasters have narrowed considerably of late, but newly minted megahit This Is Us, two nights of football and over 50 hours of The Voice made it impossible for any other Big Four network to catch the peacock.

But you probably already know this. The story of the 2016-17 TV season was written in stone by the time the Chicago Cubs won the World Series on Nov. 2. Their victory propelled Fox (also home to the 2017 Super Bowl) out of fourth place, and the Big Four rankings have been essentially fixed ever since. So while the broad strokes of these newly finalized numbers aren't exactly breaking news, the lessons inside are quite timely.

1. Sports Still Make the Biggest Difference

When you take sports out of the equation, only ABC (and, obviously, the CW) see net zero change in their primetime showing among adults 18-49. NBC loses 19 percent of its haul in the key demo without live news and sports, but still retains No. 1 status on entertainment programming alone. Fox, on the other hand, falls nearly 32 percent with the year's marquee sporting events — dipping from No. 2 to No. 4. Let there be no mistaking it: the Big Four are still hugely reliant on football. Even a couple of those pricey Thursday night games are enough to move the dial. So while fall's panicked headlines about NFL ratings fatigue proved to be a relative un-disaster, the sport is now considered with a mix of confidence and caution.

2. It's Not Easy at the Top

The Voice may be NBC's golden child, occupying an obscene amount of scheduling real estate, but its modest ratings dip means that it could finish the season as the No. 2 reality show on TV — behind ABC's shorter-order Bachelor. The 15-year-old dating competition, one of the very few broadcast series to improve year-over-year, finished the season with an average 3.1 rating among adults 18-49. That's the same live-plus-seven average as The Voice's Monday telecast, one that won't be finalized for a few weeks. The best case scenario for The Voice is a tie. No. 1 status also shifted in the drama department, with newcomer This Is Us handily outpacing Fox's Empire by more than 10 percent. The Big Bang Theory, while down 15 percent, remains miles ahead of other comedies — and entertainment telecasts.

3. Broad Hits Can Happen

Bona fide scripted success remain elusive... but possible. With an average 4.8 rating among adults 18-49 and 15.3 million viewers, This Is Us marked broadcast's first runaway success since Empire in 2015. (Sorry, Blindspot.) Unlike so many pseudo hits, This Is Us held its own throughout the season, improving on its Voice lead-in and accruing more viewers over its 18-episode run. Other networks had more modest successes, but successes all the same. ABC's Designated Survivor, for one, finished the season as a top 10 show; Fox boasted five of the top 15 new entries; and CBS' Bull, however old-skewing, is still pretty damn impressive with its 15.5 million-strong audience.

4. The Future Will be Streamed

Year-over-year linear losses are pretty damning for a lot of shows. Plenty of series are losing steam, but a great many of them are also just being consumed elsewhere. This season networks finally got aggressive in going after more comprehensive measurement. CBS rolled out Nielsen Total Content Ratings, citing a 54 percent cross-primetime boost from live-plus-same day, though that didn't include online and mobile viewing. NBC released some of the latter stats with its live-plus-35 reports. (That gave the This Is Us pilot a stunning 7.4 rating in the key demo.) And Fox has joined forces with Turner and Viacom for a new audience measurement tool combining Nielsen and Accenture (data forthcoming). The CW, though still shy to divulge specific numbers, says that streaming is up 111 percent in hours viewed from just a year ago.

It certainly makes some of these downward numbers easier to stomach. 

Final 2016-17 Averages (changes from 2015-16)

Adults 18-49
1. NBC - 2.1 rating (down 5 percent)
2. Fox - 1.9 rating (flat)
3. CBS - 1.8 rating (down 22 percent)
4. ABC - 1.6 rating (down 11 percent)
5. The CW - 0.7 rating (down 11 percent)

Total Viewers
1. CBS - 9.6 million (down 12 percent)
2. NBC - 8.1 million (down 1 percent)
3. ABC - 6.2 million (down 8 percent)
4. Fox - 5.8 million (down 2 percent)
5. The CW - 1.8 million (down 8 percent)