TV Long View: The Bar for Ratings Success Has Come Way Down — or Has It?

Raw numbers have fallen off considerably in the past decade, but the relative strength of renewed vs. canceled shows has remained fairly constant.
Courtesy of NBC; ABC; CBS
'This Is Us' (left), 'Grey's Anatomy,' 'Young Sheldon'

Ratings for ad-supported TV shows have fallen off a bunch in the past decade. That's not news.

But as the broadcast networks wrap up their renewals and cancellations for 2018-19, here's something to keep in mind: While the bar for success is considerably lower than it was 10 or even five years ago, it also hasn't moved much relative to the overall ratings climate in a given season.

In fact, the relative standards for renewal has barely budged.

The Hollywood Reporter looked at season-long ratings for entertainment shows (i.e., not sports or news programming) on the big four networks in 2009-10, 2014-15 and the current season (nothing against The CW, but its business isn't as ratings-driven as the others, even a decade ago).

In 2009-10, when Netflix had about 15 million subscribers and there were, per FX research, 216 scripted series across all platforms, the average network entertainment show drew a 2.88 rating among adults 18-49 (including a week of delayed viewing). By 2014-15, that average series had dropped to a 2.33 in the key ad demographic, and there were more than 400 scripted shows available. This season, the average show draws just under a 1.5 — little more than half what it was 10 years ago — in a TV universe where upward of 500 scripted series are projected to debut by year's end.

Digging a little deeper, though, the relationship between a season's top-rated shows and the overall average, and the average show to one that gets canceled, hasn't moved that much.

For instance:

- American Idol's Tuesday edition topped the 2009-10 season rankings with a 9.1 rating in adults 18-49. That was 3.16 times better than the average for all shows.

- In 2014-15, the meteoric first season of Empire ranked No. 1 with a 7.1 rating, just over three times higher (3.03, to be precise) than the average show.

- This season, the top renewed shows are This Is Us, The Masked Singer and The Big Bang Theory at 3.8. The spread between them and the 1.49 for the average show isn't quite as wide — but they're still more than 2.5 times ahead of the average.

In 2009-10, Grey's Anatomy was the top-rated drama (tied with the final season of Lost) at 5.1 in adults 18-49 — 77 percent above the average. This season, its 2.9 ranks second among broadcast dramas, and it's 94 above average. Young Sheldon, whose 2.7 is about 81 percent above average this season, is in a similar position to its parent show The Big Bang Theory's 5.3 a decade earlier.

Digging further down, the average rating for a renewed show in 2009-10 was 3.34, 16 percent higher, than the all-show average. Five years later, the margin was the same (2.73 for renewed shows vs. 2.31 for all).

This season, renewed series top the all-series average by … 17.5 percent, assuming a couple shows not yet picked up at publication time (namely This Is Us, whose deal wasn't quite done) move into the renewed column.

The pattern repeats with canceled shows (not including those whose endings were announced ahead of time), which across all three seasons pull in ratings about 36 percent lower than average. That measure, in fact, shows the least variation across seasons.

It's easy to look at the ratings for a one-and-done show from a decade ago — NBC's medical drama Mercy, let's say — and say its ratings would make it a hit now. And yes, Mercy's 1.8 among adults 18-49, right on the average for canceled shows in 2009-10, would be above average today.

But in the current climate, that 1.8 for Mercy is now more like the 1.0 for Happy Together or the 0.9 for The Fix, both canceled Friday. The bar may be getting lower, but it's moving in proportion to the floor and the ceiling.

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