TV Long View: 3 Shows That Illustrate a Decade of Ratings Declines

Modern Family (ABC), Law & Order: SVU (NBC) and Hawaii Five-0 (CBS) - Publicity Stills - Split -H 2019

That ratings for ad-supported TV have declined sharply over the past 10 years is not news. The steep increase in the sheer number of shows (likely 500-plus for 2019, almost twice as many as in 2011) means there's vastly more competition than there was at the top of the decade.

It's also never been easier for viewers to watch something on their own schedule, with streaming platforms and apps — not just Netflix or Amazon or Hulu, but those run by traditional networks — putting thousands of episodes of TV a few clicks away at all times. The idea of sitting down at a given time to watch a show that's not a live event seems awfully quaint, and indeed, some shows get more than half their eventual audiences (measured out to five weeks after the initial airdate) from digital viewing.

All that said, even the longer-lead and digital numbers don't necessarily make up for the erosion in traditional ratings, as examples from a couple shows that have been on the entire decade will show.

To measure how far linear numbers have fallen in the past 10 years, The Hollywood Reporter examined live-plus-7 ratings for three seasons at the beginning (2010-11), middle (2014-15) and end (2018-19) of the decade, along with the most current seven-day numbers for this season, covering 10 weeks.

In addition to average ratings for all five English-language broadcast networks, THR also determined what constituted a hit show in each season. It's an arbitrary distinction, to be sure, but it's reserved for entertainments shows (i.e., not news or sports programs) on the Big Four networks (leaving out The CW, which has long operated on a different set of ratings expectations) whose ratings are 50 percent above average.

THR also compared ratings data for three series that have been on the entire decade: ABC's Modern Family, CBS' Hawaii Five-0 and NBC's Law & Order: SVU. Their declines tend to mirror those of the larger landscape, while offering clues as to how each managed to stick around for so long.

Here are the total-viewer and adults 18-49 averages for each of the four seasons, first for all shows:

Season Total viewers (millions) 18-49 rating
2010-11 8.59 2.73
2014-15 7.9 2.17
2018-19 6.26 1.35
2019-20 6.31 1.26

And for entertainment shows only on ABC, CBS, Fox and NBC:

Season Total viewers (millions) 18-49 rating
2010-11 9.23 2.91
2014-15 8.49 2.32
2018-19 6.82 1.44
2019-20 6.99 1.32

Declines in the early part of the decade weren't terribly steep. The broadcast networks declined by about 20 percent in adults 18-49 from 2011 to 2015, but viewers fell by just 8 percent.

The losses accelerated in the second half of the decade, with 18-49 ratings sliding by 38 percent and viewers by about 20 percent from 2014-15 to 2018-19 as both content and the ways it could be watched proliferated. The slight uptick for the current season is a function of small sample size more than anything; ratings in the first half of the season are usually higher than those in the second half.

The 50 percent above average definition of a hit has, naturally, fallen by similar amounts over the course of the decade — but what hasn't changed much is the number of shows that fit those criteria. In each of the three full seasons THR examined, about the same number of shows come in above the "hit" line, benchmarks for which are below.

Season Total viewers (millions) 18-49 rating
2010-11 13.84 4.37
2014-15 12.73 3.47
2018-19 10.23 2.16
2019-20 10.49 1.98

In 2010-11, 15 shows qualified as hits among adults 18-49 under THR's metric, and 14 in total viewers. Four years later, 17 series qualified in the 18-49 demo and 13 in viewers; last season it was 14 and 15.

Which brings us to the three shows mentioned above. in 2010-11, its second season, Modern Family was an unqualified hit. It was the top-rated scripted series on TV in adults 18-49 with a 6.2 rating, and it ranked fourth among all shows, behind only the two weekly editions of American Idol on Fox and NBC's Sunday Night Football. It finished the season eighth among scripted shows in viewers (and 13th overall) with nearly 14.7 million.

The rookie season of Hawaii Five-0 that same year was also a breakout, finishing just behind Modern Family in viewers with 14.2 million and posting a very healthy 4.0 demo rating. SVU, already into its second decade in 2010, finished the season solidly above average, with a 3.4 in adults 18-49 and 10.45 million viewers.

Four years later, Modern Family was still a very strong show, having fallen only one spot in the season rankings in both adults 18-49 and total viewers from its position in 2010-11. Its 14.5 percent dip in adults 18-49 (to 5.3) was smaller than that of network TV as a whole, and it had slipped a scant 4 percent in viewers. SVU was practically even in viewers at 10.25 million, and its 21 percent drop in adults 18-49 mirrored that of broadcast TV as a whole.

Hawaii Five-0 took a steeper drop in the 18-49 demo, falling by half to 2.0 over the four years, but that as much to do with its move to the lesser-watched Friday night in 2013 as anything else. In viewers, it had declined by about 12 percent to 12.55 million. Both ranked second among all Friday shows behind its CBS companion Blue Bloods.

By last season, the raw numbers for both all three shows had come down considerably. Modern Family lost more than half its 18-49 rating from 2014-15 to finish at 2.4 for the season. SVU declined by a third to 1.8, and Five-0 was off 35 percent to 1.3. Modern Family also suffered a steep 45 percent drop in viewers, while the two dramas were off 20 percent (Five-0) and 28 percent (SVU).

Yet despite those losses, their relative positions didn't change much. Modern Family still had a demo rating more than 50 percent above average and was in the top 10 for the season in 2018-19, even if its raw number would have been below average nine years earlier. SVU was still solidly above average, and Five-0 was close to it despite continuing to air on Fridays. All three drew above-average total audiences.

Yet there's no denying the declines. CBS hasn't released any multiplatform data, but ABC has said that the Modern Family season premiere in September was at a 4.28 rating in adults 18-49 and 11.3 million viewers after 35 days, digital included. Per NBC, Law & Order: SVU's premiere delivered a 3.27 rating in the demo and 10.1 million viewers.

Those are strong numbers, to be sure, but it takes 35 days to get to an audience those shows used to reach in a week or less. There's a reason these three series have lasted as long as they have, but they're not immune to the larger forces pressing on the traditional TV model.

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