TV Long View: Five Years of Network Ratings Declines in Context

Cord-cutting and the rise of streaming — and not just on Netflix — help explain the gradual but consistent slide of Nielsen numbers.
Sam Lothridge/CBS
'NCIS: New Orleans' is a case study for linear ratings sliding in recent years.

A new TV season begins Monday, and with it, probably, another season of linear ratings declines for the broadcast networks. That's not exactly news: Nielsen numbers have been on the wane for years on ad-supported TV (both broadcast and cable), and the continued proliferation of viewing options — hello, Disney+ and Apple TV+ and HBO Max and Peacock — and shrinking number of people with cable or satellite subscriptions likely means the slide won't suddenly reverse itself in 2019-20.

Explanations for the decline usually come down to "cord-cutting" and "streaming," which make both intuitive sense and are backed up by data. That's not the whole story, however: Networks themselves have adapted to the streaming era, as have viewers, who are now accustomed to having full seasons of shows at nearly any time — something that wasn't the norm just five years ago.

The Hollywood Reporter looked at some trends both in ratings for the past half-decade and in the way consumers get their TV content. The numbers help put the decline of on-air ratings in context.

In fall 2014, according to an annual survey by Leichtman Research Group, 84 percent of TV households in the U.S. subscribed to some sort of pay-TV service — either cable, satellite or telco. Nielsen estimated there were 116.4 TV households in the country at the time, which equals about 97.8 million homes receiving TV signals via cable or satellite. Fewer than half of TV households had a streaming subscription to either Netflix, Hulu or Amazon's Prime Video.

In the 2014-15 TV season, the five English-language broadcast networks drew a combined 35.8 million viewers in primetime, along with a 9.6 rating in the key ad-sales demographic of adults 18-49.

By fall 2018, the percentage of TV households with cable, satellite or telco service had fallen to 78 percent — roughly 93.5 million of 119.9 million total TV homes. Streaming services are now in almost three-fourths of all TV homes in the U.S.

In the Nielsen ratings for 2018-19, the broadcast networks averaged 28.5 million viewers in primetime, a decline of 7.3 million viewers (20 percent) since 2014-15. The drop-off among adults 18-49 was steeper, falling 35 percent to a 6.2 rating.

The decline in pay-TV subscriptions isn't a perfect explanation for on-air ratings losses, as some of those cord-cutters likely replaced cable or satellite with services like Sling or Hulu's live TV package or a digital antenna. But as a proxy for "traditional TV viewing," that decline from 97.8 million to 93.5 million households — equivalent to more than 10 million people, given the average household size in the U.S. — is significant.

Case in point: CBS' NCIS: New Orleans, which premiered in September 2014 and has aired on Tuesday nights for its entire run so far. The series has finished in the top 20 in total viewers each season it has aired. During that time, however, it has fallen from an average of 17.42 million viewers in its first year to 10.83 million last season, mirroring the declines across the broadcast landscape.

Those missing — or less easily counted — viewers aren't just watching Netflix or Amazon shows. The proportion of people who watch network or cable shows on digital platforms, or beyond the seven days of delayed viewing that gets measured and publicly released by Nielsen, is also growing — trends that aren't reflected in the Nielsens. Studios and networks have helped viewers by offering in-season "stacking"— that is, the ability to watch every episode of a show once it's aired, rather than just the most recent five — on other platforms. That makes it easier for viewers to miss episodes when they first air, knowing that, say, the season premiere will still be easy find two months later when they're ready to catch up.

As viewing spreads out more over time, the question of whether advertisers who prop up the network model will continue paying premiums for a more diffuse audience. The question of whether a viewer is as valuable after a week as they are the night of air is still an open one.

Digital viewing may not make up the whole deficit the networks have accumulated in the past five years. There's also the question of whether advertisers will continue paying premiums for audiences that are becoming more spread out. But multiplatform viewing is significant — even if it's not all that visible.

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