TV Long View: Broadcast Nets' Rent-a-Fall Has Gone About As Well as Expected

LAs Finest Star Trek Discovery Transplant

Eight weeks into the 2020-21 TV season, broadcast networks' schedules are beginning to resemble normalcy. ABC and NBC, both of which pushed to get scripted shows on in the fall, have more than half of their primetime hours filled with original, non-acquired programming. CBS will get over that mark next week with the premieres of its Monday and Tuesday lineups.

Even Fox, which pushed all of its "fall" live-action scripted shows to the first quarter of 2021, has four nights of originals between its unscripted shows, Sunday animation block and live sports. (It's also airing two shows held over from planned summer premieres in Filthy Rich and Next.)

Early signs are that the regular lineups are down some in the ratings, but by levels that would be expected given the typical year-to-year fade on ad-supported TV. Same-day Nielsen ratings for shows that have returned so far are down about 20 percent in adults 18-49 vs. the comparable number of episodes last season, with gentler declines — in the 10 percent range — in total viewers.

Those aren't great figures, but they'd be a marked improvement over what the networks had to cobble together for the start of the season. No one was expecting the mix of acquired shows, reruns and other fill-in programming networks put up in the early fall to match a regular slate, but the early part of the season has put broadcasters into an even deeper hole.

Through seven weeks, ABC, CBS, Fox, NBC and The CW are collectively down 31 percent in total viewers compared to the first seven weeks of fall 2019. They're off by 26 percent among adults 18-49.

Of the five, ABC is in the best shape year to year: The network is down a scant 2 percent in viewers in the 18-49 demo (1.44 million vs. 1.47 million) and down 10 percent among all viewers (4.94 million vs. 5.49 million). Ironically, a couple of pandemic-caused delays in programming are big factors in keeping ABC afloat.

Through five episodes, The Bachelorette is outpacing ABC's averages for the 8-10 p.m. Tuesday time period by sizable margins: 26 percent in total viewers and a hefty 69 percent in the 18-49 demo. And while the NBA Finals may have turned in their lowest numbers ever, the six games averaged 7.45 million viewers and a 2.8 in adults 18-49 — numbers no regular ABC series matched in the same-day ratings last season. Dancing With the Stars, which was the first fall mainstay to premiere on any of the networks, is also running ahead of last season's averages.

The other networks, however, are down from between 18 percent (CBS) and 58 percent (The CW, yikes) in the 18-49 demo and at least 31 percent each in total viewers. Time period to time period, the yearly losses are even starker. For example: L.A.'s Finest, which Fox imported from Spectrum Originals, has averaged a same-day 0.4 in adults 18-49 and 2.08 million viewers over six episodes. That's less than a third of what 911 drew over its first six episodes last fall.

CBS has been airing the first season of Star Trek: Discovery — which debuted on CBS All Access in 2017 — on Thursday nights, where Evil aired last season. The three-year-old show, not surprisingly, is pulling in less than half the audience that Evil did a year ago.

The most successful of the networks' acquired shows, NBC's Transplant, is averaging 3.65 million viewers the night it airs, growing to 5.62 million over a week. The seven-day viewer figure ranks 16th among all primetime shows (broadcast and cable) so far this season — but it would have been 65th last season, and it's 42 percent below the seven-day average for New Amsterdam last season.

As schedules stabilize even more over the next couple of months, broadcast networks will probably claw back some of the audience they lost in the first month-plus of the season. It seems unlikely, however, that they'll get even most of the way out of the hole.

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