What's Behind the Ratings Slumps for Remotely Shot Shows

American Idol - Saturday Night Live - Disney Family Singalong Volume II - SPLIT-H 2020
Courtesy of ABC; NBC; ABC

American Idol and The Voice made a big deal about continuing with their final rounds in recent weeks, with the remaining contestants on each singing competition performing from their homes and hosts and judges all weighing in remotely.

Yet the ratings for the remotely produced "live" episodes have fallen flat: Both ABC's Idol and NBC's The Voice have recorded same-day season lows in the past two weeks. A similar fate befell ABC's second Disney Family Singalong special on Sunday, which drew little more than half the audience of the first edition of the special on April 16. Similarly, the first at-home edition of Saturday Night Live enjoyed a ratings surge, but the next two episodes, including the May 9 season finale, came in below the show's season average. A remotely produced episode of CBS' drama All Rise — the first scripted series to film in such a manner — also posted ho-hum numbers.

Has the novelty of remote production worn off, or after several weeks of ratings bumps fueled by widespread stay-at-home mandates during the novel coronavirus pandemic, are the numbers just reverting to their natural levels for this time of year?

It's probably a bit of both.  

"I personally don't think it's a too-close-to-home thing," former Fox and NBC scheduling chief Preston Beckman told The Hollywood Reporter. "I think there's a difference between trying to rejigger an existing show like Idol and being creative and unique with shows that incorporate the current situation."

Since its peak in late March, TV usage has declined slowly but steadily each week. Nielsen's Total Use of Television metric — encompassing traditional and time-shifted TV watching, viewing through internet-connected devices, use of video game consoles and even DVD playback — is still well above its pre-pandemic levels, but it has also fallen by about 12 percent over the past month.

At the same time the usage numbers have been declining, shows like Idol and The Voice were nearing the end of their pre-recorded episodes and had to pivot to remote production. As scripted programming inventory also petered out, networks scrambled for specials like The Disney Family Singalong and the multi-network One World: Together at Home telethon to help fill their schedules. ESPN also produced the NFL Draft remotely.

The returns on those shows have been wildly mixed: The NFL Draft set an all-time viewership record amid a barren TV sports landscape that hadn't seen any live games since March 11. The first Disney Family Singalong on April 16 had the best same-day rating among adults 18-49 (2.6) for any entertainment program since the Oscars.

Idol, The Voice and SNL, however, have all declined. Beckman also noted that ratings tend to fall across the board as the traditional TV season nears its end. The Voice's recent numbers aren't that far off from where they were a year ago, and while Idol has fallen more, its momentum was broken some by having to air two weeks of clip shows while setting up for the remote rounds.

"We always see a dip in usage at this time of the year," Beckman said. "There may also be a bit of a burnout. I have a feeling many have the news on all day and may need a break in the evening."

Looking ahead to summer, networks will fill their schedules with a mix of already completed shows, reruns and stunts like ABC's Bachelor retrospective. NBC plans to go ahead with summer flagship America's Got Talent, which had only been filming for a few weeks before production shut down. Its producers are still game-planning for the remainder of the season.

"Everyone's trying to figure this out," Beckman said, "and the smart programmers will."