Has this been “the saddest ratings season ever?”

I am inspired to write this opinion piece by an article I read in Buzzfeed called “Here Are 5 Ratings Success Stories In The Saddest Network TV Season Ever.” I’m not going to pretend that Buzzfeed is a reliable industry news source, or a reliable source for anything but entertainment, and you should make up your own mind on that subject. That having been said, I found the article factual and sensible in its analysis.

The thrust of it, if you aren’t interested in reading it, is that almost every show on network TV tanked this year. The highest rated series, The Big Bang Theory, drew a 3.1 rating, meaning about 3% of people with TVs watched it live. Or, if you’re contrary, 97% didn’t. Twenty years ago that would have been cause for cancellation, and that’s the top rated show.

The carnage continued throughout every segment and every demographic. Normally-reliable football dropped by double digits, too. Most reality shows dropped, with only one — The Bachelor actually growing.

This isn’t going to be one of those articles where we ask “what’s happening here” because we all know what’s happening. It’s not 1957, there is more out there than broadcast TV. There’s cable, there’s satellite, there’s streaming, and there’s just poking around on the internet. There are a lot of other things that people can do when they just want to sit still for an hour or so.

And of course there are DVRs, which mean more people record and watch later. The Nielsen people care mostly about those people who watch within 3 days, and to some extent about people who watch within 7 days. If something sits on your DVR longer than that, they don’t count it.

So part of the blame for bad Nielsen ratings comes from the Nielsen people, who mercilessly pander to broadcast station owners and don’t do a good job of really measuring the way people consume entertainment. In truth we don’t have good information on who watches what when, whether or not they watch the ads, or how important that information even is. At a time when over 90% of people pay for video in some way, are commercials even relevant? (That’s the purpose of Nielsen ratings by the way, to help station owners know what to charge for commercials.)

Maybe it’s time that all TV went “subscription” and people paid for it directly, with no commercials. Of course that would more or less kill local TV unless local governments taxed people so that TV could survive. It’s done that way in many other countries without oppressive oversight by the government, and on the other hand there are plenty of countries where that’s just been a gateway to state-run TV. I don’t think anyone wants that.

Still, many of us are happy paying subscription fees to our pay-TV provider and to our streaming services. When presented with commercial-free options (as Hulu does) plenty of people opt in.

But that’s getting off-track. The fact is that broadcast TV, which is some of the most expensive TV to produce, is shrinking and getting perilously close to the point where no one is watching. If you look at this list, you’ll see that very few shows even get over the “2.0” rating, meaning 98% of people aren’t watching them live. This includes certified hits! Some of your favorite programs may have a 1.0 or even lower rating. In the past such shows would have been canceled quickly. Today they’re middling hits.

I think the first thing that needs to happen is that network executives and local affiliates need to understand that this is real, this is happening and it’s not going to change. Going to 4K isn’t going to bring back audiences and neither is a summer full of reality shows. This is the new normal and you have to figure out how to do this without totally imploding. For all I know, these people have already reached that point of acceptance; I don’t sit in their meetings.

Then, you have to plan on programming that works. Obviously sports is eroding far less than scripted stuff, and I think everyone agrees that more sports and more live programming is going to help. It’s just not going to help enough. I think the real key is to go back to the thought processes of the early 1950s, when television was new. Create innovative programming. Don’t be afraid to explore niches. Look for creative ways to engage advertisers. Think, don’t coast.

It seems to me that at the moment at least, NBC is winning the innovation wars. While the company seemed hopelessly broken a few years ago, they’ve parlayed their investment in sports (the Olympics and other high-value events) into some cash and they’re willing to do what it takes to bring viewers in. I thought This is Us would be a ratings loser — a bunch of conventionally unattractive people in whiny situations — but it’s a hit because it’s engaged people. Bringing Saturday Night Live into prime-time for the West Coast got them very favorable press and it seems, some of the show’s best ratings. NBC is thinking. They don’t have the answer yet but they’re getting closer than the others.

As for ABC, CBS, and FOX — they seem to be slipping at the moment because they’re hanging onto ratings winners from previous years without successfully developing new shows. That’s the kind of thinking that sent NBC into a ten-year dive.

One interesting move we’re seeing is that networks are acknowledging their aging audiences more than ever and feeding them comfort-food programming. ABC’s bringing back Roseanne and NBC’s bringing back Will and Grace which are straight-up admissions that the networks don’t know what else to serve to GenX and baby boomers. If it works, expect to see more show reunions, but one way or the other it’s going to poop out when the well of good shows from the 1990s runs out.

So yes, I do think it has been the “saddest ratings season ever” for broadcasters. Maybe, finally, it’s going to make a difference and get those folks thinking about surviving. I hope it does.

About the Author

Stuart Sweet
Stuart Sweet is the editor-in-chief of The Solid Signal Blog and a "master plumber" at Signal Group, LLC. He is the author of over 8,000 articles and longform tutorials including many posted here. Reach him by clicking on "Contact the Editor" at the bottom of this page.