TV Long View: 3 Numbers That Explain Broadcast's Lost Fall

Kylie Bunbury in Big Sky (ABC), Ken Jeong in I Can See Your Voice (Fox) and Thomas Middleditch in B Positive (CBS)

The broadcast networks are largely finished with their fall schedules. With a handful of exceptions, the remainder of 2020 will be filled with holiday specials, movies and reruns in primetime.

And if you're saying, Wait a minute — didn't Chicago Fire only air like two times this fall? And Grey's Anatomy just six? Well, yes. The pandemic-caused late starts for virtually all network entertainment shows have severely depressed the output of programming that the five English-language networks have aired through the first third of the season.

The lack of inventory, and the patchwork networks have had to do in order to fill those holes, shows up in the ratings, of course: ABC, CBS, The CW, Fox and NBC are down a collective 26 percent among adults 18-49 and 28 percent in total viewers compared to this time a year ago — numbers that haven't changed much in the past month, when The Hollywood Reporter last looked at year to year comparisons.

It's not just ratings, though. Below are three key numbers that help explain just how different this fall has been.

Series Premieres: 11

Five scripted and five unscripted original series have debuted since the start of the season — including two Fox dramas, Filthy Rich and Next, that had initially been slated for summer. A few have performed decently: ABC's Big Sky and Fox's I Can See Your Voice rank in the top 20 among adults 18-49 (including three days of delayed viewing), while Big Sky and CBS' comedy B Positive are both in the top 30 in total viewers.

The number of new series, however, is down from 17 in fall 2019 (not including two short-run shows that aired last December), a drop of 35 percent. What's more, those 11 shows spanned a collective 72 episodes as of Dec. 13 — fewer than half of the 152 episodes of first-year series that aired in the first 12 weeks of the 2019-20 season.

By comparison, Netflix alone has almost matched the broadcast nets' output since the official start of the 2020-21 season on Sept. 21. The streamer has released at least nine new shows since then, and other major streaming platforms have rolled out more than 15 first-year series in the past three months.

If there's a (faint) silver lining, it's that the newcomers aren't faring as badly as the broadcast nets are overall. The 11 shows average a 0.7 rating in adults 18-49 and 3.63 million viewers, down 15 percent and 19 percent, respectively, vs. last fall's freshman class, a somewhat better showing than the five networks as a whole.

Total Number of Episodes: 520

Fox had most of its originals running by the beginning of October, thanks to its Sunday animated shows being able to produce remotely and unscripted series The Masked Singer and I Can See Your Voice figuring out COVID protocols to shoot in studio. ABC's Dancing With the Stars also debuted as usual in September. Scripted series, however, were well behind the curve.

Other than Filthy Rich and Next, which finished production before the novel coronavirus pandemic hit, the only two scripted shows to premiere before mid-October were The CW's Supernatural (which was finishing out its final season) and NBC's Connecting (which was filmed remotely), both of which debuted Oct. 8. Most scripted series didn't debut until late October or November.

As a result, the number of episodes of network entertainment programming has plummeted from 747 through 12 weeks of last season to 520 this year, a decline of 30 percent. NBC's three Chicago dramas premiered on Nov. 11 and aired for just one more time before taking off until the new year. CBS' Friday lineup, which debuted Dec. 4, will run just three times before going on a holiday break. No original scripted show has aired more than a half dozen episodes.

Acquired and Fill-In Shows: 11 (or more)

With scripted shows well behind their usual production and air schedules, broadcasters needed something to fill in those time periods. They turned to Canada (dramas Transplant, Nurses and Coroner have aired on NBC and The CW); to other outlets (Spectrum Originals' L.A.'s Finest on Fox and Manhunt: Deadly Games on CBS, CBS All Access' Star Trek: Discovery on CBS and Tell Me a Story on The CW); and even to Europe — English-language drama Devils, produced in Italy and starring Patrick Dempsey, has been airing on The CW.

The number above includes only outside acquisitions — it's likely that under normal circumstances, Filthy Rich and Next wouldn't have aired this fall on Fox, nor would have quickie unscripted show Emergency Call on ABC and short-run news programs The FBI Declassified and 48 Hours: Suspicion on CBS.

None of the acquisitions has been anything close to a breakout success. Transplant has fared the best of the lot, with just over 5 million viewers and a 0.6 in the 18-49 demo after three days — but those figures rank only 42nd and tied for 62nd for the season.

Broadcast schedules will normalize some more after the new year: Some 30 shows are set for season or series premieres in the first six weeks of 2021. That will help the networks some, just likely not enough to dig very far out of the hole in which they find themselves now.

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