How far has broadcast TV fallen? The Hollywood Reporter this week gives a quick clue with this graphic below of year-over-year ratings changes for the top 10 shows.
It’s not pretty. And if the bell cows are staggering, and most of them clearly are, it says nothing good about the health of the rest of the herd.
Worse, this little data reminder comes just as the networks begin trooping on stages across New York to pitch their fall lineups to advertisers in the annual Upfronts season. Don’t count on another banner year for early ad sales after 2016’s snapback from years of declines.
Only one show, the long-running unscripted competition “The Bachelor,” is up from 2015 to 2016. It continues to command appointment viewing, and saw ratings rise 3 percent, which is actually a considerable achievement not only compared to other top shows but to the general decline in pay-TV subscribers.
Two more shows, the much heralded family drama “This Is Us” and suspense thriller “Designated Survivor,” were new last year, so no comparison is possible.
Everyone else? Down as much as 35 percent, though admittedly that worst one was “Empire,” which bolted out of the gate as a transformational (if still soapy) drama about a fractious African-American family in the music business. Since its first season, however, the show hasn’t been able to recapture quite the same magic as a cultural touchstone, even if most broadcast shows would still kill for its ratings.
Among the other declining shows, only Shondaland’s durable medical drama “Grey’s Anatomy” was down less than double digits in percentage points at 8 percent.
The networks’ pitches during Upfronts will be helped by a string of recent controversies and problems with Facebook and Google/YouTube, including video-measurement issues, adjacency to extremists’ videos that led to an ad boycott, and the festering fake-news issue.
Those combined have incurred some doubt about their reliability as brand partners, though they remain powerful data-driven competition for the networks.
That said, you can count on lots of network pitches about their role as a safe haven for all those ads for breakfast cereal and cleaning supplies. Whether those pitches, combined with some enhanced data understanding by the networks, will help the companies clean up in early ad sales won’t be known for weeks to come.