What’s Up? Not a Ton In Broadcast Ratings

But tried-and-true dramas 'NCIS,' 'Chicago Fire' and 'Grey’s Anatomy' are defying downward trends

Why This Matters

WHY THIS MATTERS
The Big Four broadcast nets are still the best place for a show to reach a massive audience.

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While the recently concluded broadcast season did not produce a true hit, there were nonetheless rays of hope poking through the gray, and robust series flying in the face of conventional wisdom. Ratings erosion is felt across the TV spectrum in this era of a zillion choices, but some venerable series, including Grey’s Anatomy, The Big Bang Theory and Dateline NBC, did post ratings gains year over year.

Ratings for mature shows typically fall off, but these three series defied gravity—and perhaps logic—in an era when the heavily scripted streaming series get the buzz. “People like shows where they can binge a 13-episode story arc, but they also like their old favorites,” says Kelly Kahl, CBS senior executive VP, primetime. “They’re comfortable, and they deliver a complete story every week.”

Rating the Ratings

Of course, what exactly constitutes a ratings gain these days is eminently debatable. While adults 18-49 continues to be a metric of record, networks are pushing hard on delayed viewing, even if the monetization model past seven-day is sorely lacking. Beyond the Nielsens, the notion of “creating an asset,” as Jeff Bader, NBC entertainment president, program planning, strategy and research, puts it—a show, preferably owned by its host network, with substantial value in the expanding after-market—is top-of-mind in TV today.

But some shows did pull real ratings. On CBS, Big Bang Theory was up 2% in most current 18-49 for the season, and 8% in total viewers. NCIS grew 3% in 18-49 and 8% in total viewers. Both hit milestone episodes (200 for Big Bang, 300 for NCIS), and Big Bang drew extra viewers with the story line about Sheldon and Amy consummating their relationship.

Kahl says the less-serialized nature of both keep the story lines fresh. “These are the two biggest shows on TV,” says Kahl. “There are reasons why the shows are where they are—audiences love and enjoy them.”

On NBC, Sunday Night Football grew 4% in 18-49 and 6% in total viewers. Dateline grew a whopping 20% in 18-49 and 9% in viewers. Chicago Fire leaped 8% in total viewers. Like its pace-setting CBS counterparts, Fire benefits from its episodes’ beginning-middle-end formula. “They’re easy to join if you haven’t watched from the beginning,” says Bader. “It’s great characters and a world that people gravitate to.”

It was a disappointing season for Fox and ABC, but the networks did have their wins. On Fox, Hell’s Kitchen was up 4% year-over-year in total multiplatform audience, while comedies New Girl and Bob’s Burgers also registered multiplatform gains.

Grey’s Anatomy had a big year on ABC, creatively and ratings-wise, up an average of 100,000 total viewers (and virtually flat in 18- 49). Watchers say the killing off of McDreamy the previous season opened up creative avenues, while the power of Shonda Rhimes’ Thursday block has given Grey’s a strong support system. “The format is also perfect for revitalization each season, as new interns can arrive to lend fresh story lines,” notes Christine Becker, Notre Dame associate professor of television.

Rhimes’ producing partner Betsy Beers says that teens finding the show make for three generations currently enjoying Grey’s. “It’s incredibly exciting and invigorating,” Beers says, “to be talking to a whole new group of people watching the show.”