This story first appeared in the Oct. 10 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
To the relief of many, the first week of the 2014-15 television season produced a tentative crop of freshman winners. ABC’s Black-ish and How to Get Away With Murder and Fox’s Gotham stand out as the most notable newcomers, marrying strong reviews and exceptional early ratings. But the overall ratings picture remains troubling for the Big Four, which is why the network playing field increasingly is focused on time-shifting, alternate viewing platforms and even the pop-culture prestige of social engagement.
Read more Complete Guide to TV Premiere Dates 2014
Last year, ABC earned the distinction of being the first network to cancel a series only two weeks into the season — remember Lucky 7? No? — but it doesn’t appear decisions will be made nearly as quickly this year. Shows like Fox’s Red Band Society, anemic in its second week with a 1.1 rating in the key adults 18-to-49 demographic in the live-plus-same-day metric, already would be hunched over the chopping block during many recent seasons. But not now. Credit DVR data, which reveals that the same episode brought the biggest spike (64 percent) among broadcast shows after three days of viewing.
Such examples of growth, often replicated by even the biggest TV hits, have prompted a dramatic change in the way the networks report their performance. Last season, only Fox provided morning-after projections of how its shows would perform after three, seven and even 30 days of time-shifting; this season, all but premiere-week demo winner NBC include such forecasts in daily ratings reports. The initiative even received the Leslie Moonves seal of approval on the season’s eve when the CBS Corp. president and CEO declared seven-day lifts the “industry standard” in a news release. It helps that much of CBS’ fall ad inventory was sold on the live-plus-7 metric.
That willingness to promote DVR afterlife extends to returning series, especially because all but six Big Four efforts thus far have returned lower than last year’s debuts. There also is the fact that many new shows have not yet bowed; the fall’s biggest gamble, NBC’s State of Affairs — commanding an average of $219,188 for a 30-second spot, the highest among new shows, according to Advertising Age — doesn’t arrive until Nov. 17. While everyone plays the waiting game, premiere week 2014 tentatively boils down to two big takeaways: NBC (with The Voice, though it returned down again) topped the demo for a third straight year, and CBS (thanks to Thursday Night Football) was the only network to post year-over-year growth. “Live data is a hurdle to jump, and I don’t blame the networks for saying, ‘Let’s wait,’ ” says Sam Armando, senior vp and director of strategic intelligence at media-buying firm SMGx. “These early results are discouraging, with the exception of maybe CBS. We’re seeing a lot of negative numbers compared to a year ago.”