How NBC Finished the Season at No. 1 — Without an Asterisk (Analysis)

The Super Bowl can't lift Fox, even as its advantage outrates the Winter Olympics, CBS takes the biggest tumble, ABC lingers in fourth and all but the Peacock wrap the year with more disappointments.
Virginia Sherwood/NBC; Ron P. Jaffe/Fox; Brownie Harris/FOX; ABC/Richard Cartwright
Clockwise: "The Blacklist," "How I Met Your Mother," "Scandal," "Sleepy Hollow"

The race to win the 2013-14 television season wasn't exactly a nail-biter. An especially strong fall for NBC led right into the network's pricey (but profitable) coverage of the Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia. By the time the May sweep rolled around, a NBC victory in the key demographic of adults 18-49 was long assured -- leaving the rest of the Big Four to spin what has otherwise proved to be a disappointing year.

Different statistics have been thrown out over the last few weeks as execs from each of the broadcast nets spent their upfronts talking about the ways they had a claim to the No. 1 title -- whether that be in total viewers, nonsports programming, engagement or just the smallest drop-offs from the previous season. But two years after moving out of last place, and one year after a season that had it seesaw between first and fifth, NBC's latest win is uncontested.

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Most current ratings on the eve of the season's end have NBC averaging a 2.7 rating with adults under 50, a 13 percent improvement from last year. If you took out all Olympic coverage, the network's average would only drop to a 2.5, still better than last season (when it finished No. 3). Outside of the the Games and Sunday Night Football -- the NFL was actually down a hair this season -- NBC owes its win to the continued success of The Voice, the launch of The Blacklist and, oddly enough, Parenthood.

While Jason Katims' critically favored drama remained relatively unassuming in the ratings, it lessened the hemorrhaging on Thursday night, which housed D.O.A. comedy duds including The Michael J. Fox Show and Sean Saves the World. NBC's soon-to-be-tinkered-with "Must See" block saw the 10 p.m. hour improve 92 percent with the steady Parenthood, ending years of failed launches in the problematic time slot. (The network stands to further improve Thursdays next year with Blacklist's move.)

Next season will almost certainly bring more shuffling in the ranking, but NBC's 2013-14 title should go a long way toward washing off the stigma of so many seasons spent as the broadcast whipping boy. Especially when you look at the rest of the Big Four.

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Determining who finished second is more complicated. Last year's top network, CBS, fell to third place this season in the key 18-49 demo, dropping 17 percent from a Super Bowl-lifted year and finishing just below a still-second Fox. But Fox's flat 2.5 rating in the key demo comes courtesy of airing the Super Bowl.

And let no one underestimating the boost provided by the Super Bowl. The big game regularly pushes its broadcast host to the top of the rankings. Despite airing for just a few hours on one night, this year's game lifted Fox's season average a shade more than two weeks of Olympics coverage did NBC's -- improving its average showing with adults 18-49 by 307,000 for the entire season. It helped Fox stem broader losses caused by the decline of American Idol and the late X Factor, but that's about all it did. The year comes to a close with freshmen MasterChef Junior and Sleepy Hollow, off the schedule since January, as Fox's lone new hits.

CBS will no doubt cite Fox's Super Bowl (and NBC's Olympics-NFL cocktail) as its reason for claiming the top spot excluding all sports, but its losses were still considerable. Monday continued to be a problem, inspiring the upcoming amputation of comedies from the 9 p.m. hour, despite the final season of How I Met Your Mother inching up 10 percent. CBS earned an expected win among total viewers (10.7 million), and ever-dominant The Big Bang Theory also grew this season, but the net lacked what all others managed to produce this season: a strong new series. (An argument could be made for comedy The Millers, though its fate is thus far tied to its Big Bang lead-in.)

That leaves fourth-place ABC. Largely left out of the sports conversation thanks to Disney sib ESPN owning that space, the Alphabet net shed 5 percent from last season and moved down to an average 2.1 rating in the demo. Agents of SHIELD certainly fell shy of expectations, but it was still the third-biggest launch of the season. And Scandal, the gift that keeps on giving, climbed another 35 percent during its third year.

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What ABC does have is an optimism-inducing eleventh-hour victory. It is about to win its first May sweep in 14 years after five consecutive weeks topping the key demo.

One sports-less network to net some growth this year was The CW. The youngest of the broadcast networks saw 18-49 viewership improve by 14 percent, bolstered in part by successful Vampire Diaries spinoff The Originals and an overall strategy to embrace genre fare. The CW has long touted 18- to 34-year-olds, where it was flat this season, but the under-50 gains were the main talking point during last week's upfront presentation.

The pressure is now on for next season. Fox, ABC and CBS will all be trying to make up from considerable setbacks this year. And NBC, likely feeling as much pressure as ever, will try to hold on to the crown -- something the 2015 Super Bowl broadcast rights will no doubt assist.   

Adults 18-49 (average rating, change from 2012-13 season)
NBC: 2.7, up 13 percent
Fox: 2.5, even

CBS: 2.4, down 17 percent

ABC:  2.1, down 5 percent

CW: 0.8, up 14 percent

Total Viewers (in millions, change from 2012-13 season)
CBS: 10.73 million, down 9 percent
NBC: 9.28 million, up 33 percent

ABC: 7.59 million, down 3 percent

Fox: 7.35 million, up 4 percent

CW: 1.91 million, up 5 percent