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The first week of the 2020-21 TV season featured far less original programming on the broadcast networks than it did a year ago — and far fewer people watching.
A paucity of original shows — in particular scripted series — led to TV usage figures that were off by double digits compared to the opening week of the 2019-20 season. The decreased usage in turn fueled precipitous ratings drops for the broadcast networks, on top of the expected year to year dips as traditional TV’s footprint continues to shrink.
None of those figures are unexpected: The coronavirus pandemic pushed the start of production on most live-action scripted back by more than a month. A typical late September rollout was never really in the cards this year.
Still, the declines are sharp, and the few places where year to year comparisons are applicable don’t paint a very pleasant picture.
Broadcasters aired far fewer hours of original programming in the week of Sept. 21 — the official start date of the 2020-21 season, per Nielsen — than they did for premiere week in 2019. The big four English-language networks (ABC, CBS, Fox and NBC) ran only 57 hours of “original” primetime programming for the week, and that includes five hours of acquired shows that had already debuted on other outlets in the United States. That’s down from 72 hours for premiere week last year, a decrease of 21 percent (28 percent if the five acquired hours are excluded).
The year to year difference is even starker when looking at scripted programming: Last week featured just seven hours of scripted shows on those four networks, including three hours of acquired shows — not even a fifth of the 41 hours of scripted series aired the same week in 2019.
The dearth of programming translated to a big drop in TV usage: Traditional TV watching in primetime — whether live or DVR playback — was down by 21 percent from a year ago, per Nielsen figures. The drop in ratings was even bigger: ABC, CBS, Fox and NBC averaged 9 million fewer viewers last week than during 2019’s premiere week (15.88 million vs. 24.91 million). In the key ad demographic of adults 18-49, the four nets’ 3.5 rating and 4.5 million viewers in that age group is down from a 5.4 and 7.15 million viewers. Both the total viewer figures and demographic numbers are down by about 35 percent.
Because network schedules are so different than they normally are, apples to apples comparisons are tough to come by, but a few Fox shows help illustrate the dropoff.
The Masked Singer opened its season on the first Wednesday of the season, just as it did last year. Like the larger network averages, the show’s numbers were down considerably. The premiere’s same-day average fell 36 percent in adults 18-49 (2.5 to 1.6) and 26 percent in total viewers (8.02 million to 5.92 million). Three days of delayed viewing didn’t do a lot to close the gap: The Masked Singer still lags last season’s debut by 33 percent in adults 18-49 (2.2 vs. 3.3) and 22 percent in viewers (8.11 million vs. 10.45 million).
Fox’s Sunday animated shows also debuted in their normal spots, and while they were steady or up over last season’s premieres, that was largely due to help from an NFL lead-in. Compared to their first football-boosted airing last year, The Simpsons, Bless the Harts, Bob’s Burgers and Family Guy declined by a collective 23 percent in adults 18-49 and total viewers.
The one constant, relatively speaking, is the NFL. NBC’s Sunday Night Football, the lone primetime game last week, drew 17.8 million viewers, off by 4 percent from the same week last year, but it led the every other network program (excluding NFL pre- and postgame shows) by more than 10 million viewers.
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