NBC and CBS Both Say They're No. 1: Deconstructing the Bragging-Rights Arguments

NBC is claiming a 52-week victory in total viewers for the first time in 16 years, while CBS touts its regular-season win.
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NBC's Bob Greenblatt (left), CBS' Kelly Kahl

The following things are all true:

1. NBC will lead the September-to-September TV year in adults 18-49, just as it did in the regular September-to-May season.

2. For the first time in 16 years, the network will also finish No. 1 in total viewers for the 52-week period, thanks in no small part to airing the Super Bowl and the Winter Olympics.

3. Given those two ratings engines, the race for total-viewer bragging rights probably shouldn't have been very close. But it was.

4. CBS can still credibly run promos saying it is "America's most watched network."

NBC will hang onto the sizable lead it amassed among adults 18-49 during the regular season through the end of summer (the 2017-18 period ends Sept. 23). The Peacock Network currently averages 1.8 in the demo to 1.3 for ABC and CBS and 1.2 for Fox. NBC's 38 percent margin over second place is the largest at the 50-week mark since the advent of people meters in the late 1980s.

NBC is averaging 7.78 million viewers in primetime over the past 50 weeks, leading CBS (7.67 million) by about 110,000 viewers. With two Sunday Night Football games, the finale of America's Got Talent and the Emmy Awards on tap in the next two weeks, its position at the top is safe.

"I'm extremely pleased that NBC has prevailed once again in 18-49 and all demos, but we're obviously thrilled to become America's most-watched network in total viewers for the first time in 16 years," NBC Entertainment president Bob Greenblatt said Monday in a statement.

"CBS is once again America's most-watched network across primetime, daytime and late night, earnings a ratings trifecta in the 2017-2018 broadcast season, which concluded last night," said CBS in a May 24 press release.

Again, both statements are true — and the dueling claims amount to, essentially, an argument over time frames and about a measurement metric that is not the primary currency of the network business.

NBC, not surprisingly, likes the 52-week number because it includes the network's summer lineup. That means including America's Got Talent, which, despite being down year to year, dominates the summer and whose ratings have surpassed The Voice as the top competition show on TV, along with solid performers like World of Dance, American Ninja Warrior and Making It.

It was the summer slate, in fact, that helped NBC pass CBS in the 52-week rankings. As CBS noted in May, it led the fall-to-spring portion of 2017-18 despite NBC's having both the Super Bowl and the Winter Olympics.

In February, the Super Bowl delivered 103.4 million viewers for NBC — down from recent years, yes, but still the 10th-biggest single-network telecast in U.S. television history. The network then aired 18 nights of Olympics coverage that averaged 17.8 million viewers; at the close of the games, NBC was 1.16 million viewers ahead of CBS for the season.

CBS closed the gap week by week and overtook NBC in the week of May 7; the Eye eventually finished the season with a lead of about 150,000 people.

NBC clawed back that advantage in the summer, resulting in the current dual claims to king-of-the-mountain status.

As for the demo numbers that drive the business? Well, it's not a particularly great story for anyone. Every broadcast network is down in adults 18-49 vs. this time in 2017. NBC's 1.8 is a tenth behind its year-ago number; CBS and ABC are off two tenths apiece (1.3 vs. 1.5); and Fox is down three tenths at 1.2.

The new season of Nielsen measurement, and the start of a new argument over who is No. 1, begins Sept. 24. For what it's worth, CBS has the 2019 Super Bowl, so its odds of keeping the "most-watched" title in the regular 2018-19 season are pretty good.