Fall TV Premiere Week Ratings: "Nothing's Breaking Out Like Last Year"

Sterling K. Brown in This is Us - Publicity - H 2016
Ron Batzdorff/NBC

No 'Empire' (or even a 'Blindspot'), but NBC and CBS have possible hits on their hands and Fox and ABC struggle as overall live tune-in on the Big Four networks falls double digits from 2015.

It's good to be NBC and CBS. The dueling broadcast networks kicked off the fall tightly matched in the key demo.

Ahead of time-shifting lifts, a handful of promising premieres, stable returns and the lingering appeal of the NFL delivered NBC an average 2.51 rating in adults 18-to-49 — with CBS right behind with a 2.46. Each of the two networks pulled nearly the combined total of softer ABC and Fox.

"First week just shows what promotion can do," observes analyst Sam Armando, lead investment director at MediaVest-Spark, noting especially strong turn-outs for heavily advertised This Is Us (NBC) and Designated Survivor (ABC). "Half of the battle is getting the sampling, and the networks seem to be doing a good job of that."

This Is Us and Designated Survivor also lead early improvement as well, each climbing roughly 1.5 points in the first round of live-plus-3 ratings. But neither of those shows — nor CBS stand-outs Kevin Can Wait and Bull — have yet to boast near the impact of an Empire or even the top launch of last fall's premiere week, NBC's Blindspot, which netted a 3.1 rating in the key demo for its live premiere. In fact, Big Four ratings overall were down 12 percent from 2015.

"Nothing's breaking out like last year," adds Armando, "But we're seeing some consistent performance across the different nights of the week."

As has become an annual part of the premiere week narrative, each member of the Big Four has succeeded in having at least one thing to crow about. NBC won the week in the key demo for the fifth straight year, successfully launching This Is Us and seeing little ratings erosion for reality flagship The Voice. CBS is the most stable, year over year, and scored a boffo win on Friday with its MacGyver reboot — on top of strong launches on more easily programmed nights. ABC's Designated Survivor currently ranks as the biggest grower among adults 18-49, enjoying the best live-plus-3 ratings lift since Empire premiere in 2014. (And, though it currently ranks a distant third, ABC would be a narrow No. 2 if sports were cut out of the ratings equation.) And, speaking of Empire, the sting of Fox's current fourth-place status is lessened by the fact that it still boasts the No. 1 series on broadcast. Empire's season premiere has already climbed to a 5.5 rating among adults 18-49 after just three days of time-shifting.

But wins remain relative this early in the game. The current rankings, indicative as they might be of the weeks and months to come, are relatively immune to the performance of any one member of the freshman crop. Even the strongest fall launches — even the ones that have already nabbed a full season — will have to prove endurance with both linear and nonlinear viewers to still be in the conversation this time next year.

A version of story first appeared in the Oct. 14 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.