TV Long View: Premiere Week Lows and the Industry's New Normal

Same-day Nielsen ratings for network series have fallen precipitously in the past five years, and delayed and multiplatform viewing isn't likely to get all of those losses back.
Robert Voets/Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc.; Richard Cartwright/ABC; Virginia Sherwood/NBC
From left: 'Young Sheldon,' 'Modern Family,' 'Law & Order: SVU'

Here is a partial list of shows that have had their lowest-rated season premieres in the past couple of weeks: Modern Family, The Good Doctor, Young Sheldon, Law & Order: SVU, Empire, NCIS: New Orleans, American Horror Story. It would be no surprise to see the likes of The Flash and The Walking Dead join that group when they open their seasons in early October.

Ad-supported TV is swimming against a years-long tide of declining viewership, coupled with an explosion of other places to watch programming — everything from Netflix to Twitch.

On top of that, networks are adapting to the changing landscape by trying to reach viewers via their own apps and digital platforms, which makes it awfully easy for a viewer to miss an episode when it airs, forget to set the DVR and still be able to catch up.

As a result of all those changes, same-day Nielsen ratings — the numbers that are released every morning — have fallen precipitously in recent years. Some of that audience has in fact migrated to delayed viewing or other platforms, but some of it is just gone.

The Hollywood Reporter looked at the premiere weeks of three recent seasons: 2014-15, 2017-18 and this week, which kicked off the 2019-20 season. The linear audience, still pretty strong in 2014, is now quite small.

In the first week of the 2014-15 season, primetime shows on the big four broadcast networks (excluding sports and news programs) averaged a 2.3 rating among adults 18-49 and about 8.75 million viewers. Only two shows — a pair of episodes from Fox's soon-to-be abandoned reality series Utopia — fell below a 1.0 in the 18-49 demographic, and The Big Bang Theory's season premiere topped the rankings with a 5.5.

Three years later, the audience erosion was pretty significant: 18-49 ratings were down to 1.5, a drop of 35 percent from 2014, while the total-viewer average fell 23 percent to 6.77 million. The week's top entertainment show, again CBS' Big Bang Theory, posted a 4.1 in adults 18-49

Through Thursday, the premiere-week averages for 2019 were down to 1.0 and 5.51 million viewers, declines of 33 percent and 19 percent from just two years ago. With Big Bang Theory no longer airing, Fox's The Masked Singer claimed the No. 1 spot among adults 18-49, albeit with just a 2.5 rating.

Since 2014, then, the average adults 18-49 rating for a premiere-week show has fallen by more than half. Total viewers has fallen by 37 percent.

(Yes, there are a couple of cable shows name-checked in the list above, too. Ad-supported cable is on a similar trajectory: American Horror Story premiered to a 3.1 in adults 18-49 in 2014, a 2.0 in 2017 and a 1.0 on Sept. 18. Since 2017, The Walking Dead's on-air ratings have come down by almost two-thirds.)

Broadcasters will recoup some of those losses through delayed viewing; if patterns from last season hold, the 18-49 average for this week's shows will come up by about 60 percent with seven days of DVR and on-demand playback. Multiplatform viewing is also a good-sized part of the picture. NBC's Superstore and The Good Place, both of which pull mediocre numbers on air, last season more than doubled their 18-49 ratings after a week (with digital platforms included).

But even with a 60 percent bump in adults 18-49 over seven days, this year's premiere-week slate would only barely move ahead of the same-day ratings from two years ago. That's not going to be tenable for a whole lot longer.