Why the 'Glee' Season Three Premiere Took a Ratings Dive (Analysis)


While the series bow won the hour in the 18-34 demographic, uneven storytelling and the saturation effect of so many brand extensions may be leading to fatigue.

Fox’s hit musical drama Glee took a ratings hit in its third-season premiere Tuesday, falling 29 percent in the 18-49 demographic compared to last year’s season opener.

Glee still pulled in a very healthy 4.0 rating (and 8.6 million viewers) and it was the top-rated show in the 8 p.m. time slot among younger viewers 18-34. But it’s nevertheless a surprising dip for a series that became an overnight phenomenon two years ago and has since generated millions of iTunes downloads and spawned a concert tour, a 3D movie and a reality spinoff (Oxygen’s The Glee Project).

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Even more surprising is that freshman comedy The New Girl built on its Glee lead-in, pulling in 10 million viewers and averaging a 4.8 rating, up 55 percent compared to the season premiere of Raising Hope in September 2010.

The main culprit, say industry observers, is likely an uneven second season that seemed to sacrifice storytelling for star tributes.

“A lackluster storyline last season may have played a part [in the premiere ratings],” says Brad Adgate, senior vp research at Horizon Media.

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Glee opened big last year, pulling in a 5.4 rating in the demo and 12 million viewers. It finished its second-season run averaging a 3.4 rating in the demo (excluding the post-Super Bowl episode).

Many industry insiders acknowledge that Glee went off the tracks creatively last season. But Fox executives have expressed confidence that co-creators Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk have achieved a course-correction this season. Indeed, Fox Entertainment president Kevin Reilly has stressed that it’s “a very back-to-basics year.”

The show has also weathered controversy. News that its stars Lea Michele, Chris Colfer and Cory Monteith would exit the show at the end of this season spurred millions of angry Tweets and blog posts from fans who have become attached to the actors and -- perhaps irrationally -- expected them to continue on the high school-set series even after their characters graduated. (Producers subsequently said that the trio are under contract and while their characters are graduating this season, they may return to Glee should it get a fourth season or in a potential New York-set spinoff.)

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And the Glee brand extensions, while pulling in plenty of extra cash for studio 20th Century Fox Television, also could be a double-edged sword, leading to a “saturation” effect and viewer fatigue as evidenced by the disappointing box office for summer’s 3D concert movie.

“The summer concerts, rumors about cast changes, the downloads, the Oxygen reality series,” adds Adgate. “Perhaps the franchise has spread itself too thin in an attempt to make ancillary [revenue].”

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Of course, any network -- especially broadcast networks with a rapidly aging viewer demographic -- would take a 4 rating in the advertiser-coveted 18-49 demo. And Glee also has a high percentage of DVR viewing. Last season, the show’s live-plus-seven rating rose to a 4.2.

But while the hard-core Gleeks are obviously still onboard. It remains to be seen if casual fans will re-discover the show as this “back-to-basics” season progresses.