NBC Finishes Super-Bowl-Fueled Season at No. 1, Though CBS and a Rising ABC Still Thrive

The Alphabet is the only broadcast net to grow, while Fox drops to No. 4 — even with 'Empire.'
AP Images

Fulfilling its monthslong destiny, one anointed by the Super Bowl, NBC has closed out the 2014-15 television season as the No. 1 network — despite a last-minute narrowing of the race by CBS and a resurgent ABC.

The victory, which the network did not fail to tout during its May 11 upfront presentation, is bittersweet. Its average 2.4 rating among adults 18-49 in primetime was achieved largely on the merits of the NFL and The Voice. The highest-rated network on the dial was also the only broadcaster to fail to launch a single new hit this past season (as evidenced by its modest renewals). NBC's situation is one of several blatant juxtapositions in the survey of the TV year that was — the most obvious being fourth-place Fox, still down 24 percent from last season, even with mega-success Empire.

Fox is not alone in its losses. NBC suffered a 11 percent drop from last season, when it topped the Big Four for the first time in a decade with a clean and definitive win. CBS managed to improve its showing among total viewers, though it was also down with adults 18-49 (just 4 percent). ABC was the only network to grow in the demo year over year, inching up 5 percent thanks to its several scripted successes.

To celebrate its win, NBC was the only net to issue a formal statement on Tuesday once the numbers were safely locked. “We feel fortunate to follow our long-awaited victory last year with a second consecutive season-long win,” said NBC Entertainment chairman Bob Greenblatt. “It’s a testament to the passionate work and phenomenal talent of the entire team at NBCUniversal. … That's been the key to transforming a broadcast network that three years ago had the Super Bowl on its schedule — and yet still landed in last place — into the network that is still the No. 1 primetime and late-night champion this year."

As is the case every season, the final numbers get much more revealing when you fool around with them. Without the Super Bowl, CBS lands on top by nearly a full ratings point. And ABC, which almost ties NBC without the big game, rises to No. 1 when you take out sports completely.

The lack of sports is ABC's cross to bear; ESPN's corporate sibling hasn't gotten any NFL love since it last aired the Super Bowl in 2006. ABC's strides in entertainment programming are significant, emphasized during its own upfront, and it capped off the season with a May sweeps victory.

Demo stats may have been overwhelmingly down for the season, but the state of overall viewership wasn't so dire. CBS, ABC and The CW all posted growth, and The CW nabbed its most watched season since the year it launched. (The other broadcast net was dead even year over year among adults 18-49, improving its showing among the younger men it has aggressively targeted with its comic book fare.)

More than recent years, the end of this season marks the arrival of a foregone conclusion on all fronts. Though the rankings have fluctuated several times over the past eight-plus months — just look at CBS' eleventh-hour play to tie for the year — they end just where they started during premiere week.

Adults 18-49 for the 2014-15 season

1. NBC - 2.4 rating (down 11 percent)
2. CBS - 2.3 rating (down 4 percent)
3. ABC - 2.2 rating (up 5 percent)
4. Fox - 1.9 rating (down 24 percent)
5. CW - 0.8 rating (even)

Total viewers for the 2014-15 season

1. CBS - 11.3 million (up 5 percent)
2. NBC - 8.6 million (down 9 percent)
3. ABC - 8.0 million (up 5 percent)
4. Fox - 5.8 million (down 21 percent)
5. CW - 2.1 million (up 12 percent)