TV Long View: 'Crazy Ex-Girlfriend's' Unique Ratings History

That the CW series survived four seasons with such low numbers probably wouldn't have been possible in any other era of television.
Erica Parise/The CW
Rachel Bloom on 'Crazy Ex-Girlfriend'

The CW aired the series finale of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend on Friday. Ratings for the episode aren't out as of publication time, but based on the show's history two things are probable: Those who watched it are likely to have loved it dearly, and there weren't very many of them.

For all its critical acclaim and fiercely devoted audience, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend ends its four-season run as one of network TV's least-watched shows. In three of its four seasons, in fact, it finished dead last for the season among all regularly scheduled broadcast programs in total viewers (the exception is 2017-18, when another CW show, Life Sentence, had a slightly smaller audience). It was last or tied for the bottom in adults 18-49 in all four seasons.

That a show with that small an audience, at least as measured by Nielsen, could survive for four years is somewhat remarkable — and it probably couldn't have happened in any other era of TV, and likely not on a different broadcast network. It found the right home (after beginning life as a Showtime project) at the right time, then found its niche.

Crazy Ex-Girlfriend premiered in October 2015, toward the end of The CW's first streaming output deal with Netflix and Hulu and about nine months before the network re-upped with Netflix in an agreement that put full seasons of CW shows on the streamer eight days after their finales.

The two deals gave network owners CBS and Warner Bros. a big influx of cash. It also, at least in part, relaxed some of the pressure on series to pull in strong (or even decent) linear ratings. The CW has been calling itself a "multiplatform network" for several years, and the Netflix pact and its own digital player (which is free and ad-supported) are sizable parts of that.

The network's structure is also a factor: All of The CW's shows come from its two parent companies' studios, Warner Bros. TV and CBS TV Studios, meaning whatever backend money those series make flows to WarnerMedia (the newly renamed parent of Warner Bros.) and CBS Corp. Other broadcasters also rely heavily on in-house programs, too, but not to the exclusion of all other suppliers.

The survival of a very low-rated show for a second season is hardly unprecedented. It's part of the legend of NBC's 1980s rebirth that the network stuck with both Hill Street Blues and Cheers after both finished in the bottom 10 for their first seasons.

Both of those shows, however, climbed into the top half of the rankings the following year (which, admittedly, may have been a bit easier to do in an era of just three major networks that aired maybe 80 scripted shows in a calendar year).

Crazy Ex-Girlfriend never did that. Its first season averaged 1.05 million viewers and a 0.4 rating in adults 18-49 with a week of delayed viewing. Season two came in at 751,000 and 0.3, season three 796,000 and 0.3. The current season (through 14 of 18 episodes) averages 582,000 viewers and a 0.2.

It's hard to imagine that even 10 years ago, a show with the ratings profile of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend would have survived to a second season, let alone four. The avenues that exist now to keep a series with such a niche audience afloat, even on ad-supported TV, just didn't exist then, or were in such early stages that they hadn't been adopted by enough viewers to matter.

All those factors mean that a small but devoted audience is easier to monetize than it used to be, as there are incremental revenues at each stage. (The fact that Crazy Ex-Girlfriend was nearly unanimously loved by critics and has won two of the three Emmys that The CW has ever been awarded also helped.)

As linear ratings become a smaller piece of the overall picture of a show's health, more low-rated series have survived for multiple seasons. That's the state of the ad-supported TV business today. But Crazy Ex-Girlfriend surviving this long at ratings this low is a singular event.