Do strong TV ratings mean better times ahead?


I don’t believe that TV ratings are a leading economic indicator, but I think this season’s early ratings returns are signs of good things to come.

The math behind my theory isn’t complicated: strong TV ratings attract advertisers, advertisers mean money and money means employment. Sine qua non. (I’m not sure I’m really applying that phrase correctly, but you have to admit it sounds cool to use Latin in blog posts.)

True, TV ratings are probably up because everyone is staying home to avoid spending money, but it’s a start. It would have been far worse if broadcast TV launched its fall season and no one showed up.

Many of this season’s fall premieres have turned in a solid performance. Audiences welcomed back returning shows CBS’ The Big Bang Theory, Fox’s House, CBS’ NCIS, ABC’s Grey’s Anatomy and Fox’s Family Guy with open arms. More than 20 million people watched NCIS on Tuesday night, making it one of the biggest advertising platforms around.

And a few new shows look like they are going to break out: CBS’ NCIS Los Angeles and CBS’ The Good Wife opened well at 9 p.m. and 10 p.m. on Tuesdays, ABC’s new Wednesday night comedy line-up comprised of Modern Family and Cougar Town opened to decent ratings, and Fox may have a surprise hit on its hands with Family Guy spin-off The Cleveland Show. (Can’t get enough of that Seth MacFarlane! Can you name the four shows in which Seth is involved this fall?)

In daytime, CBS’ Oprah and Sony’s Dr. Oz both had strong premieres. Oprah came roaring back with controversial interviews with Whitney Houston and Mackenzie Phillips after seeing a ratings decline in the past two years, and Dr. Oz surprised and impressed the syndication community by scoring a 2.3 live plus same day national household rating in the show’s first week, tying the debut of CBS’ Rachael Ray three years ago. Oz’ feat is particularly impressive considering that the show doesn’t have near the big-market clearances that Rachael did and does.

I’m aware that there are some disappointments in that mix: Heroes’ incredibly poor ratings performance likely means that this is that once promising show’s last season; NBC’s three new shows: Mercy, Trauma and Community all needed to open stronger; and the jury is still out on Jay Leno, which has held up pretty well to this point. (The Hollywood Reporter’s James Hibberd has this interesting look at Jay’s halo effect that’s worth a read.)

Still, it’s the combination of strong ratings performances and the realization that they actually do have money to spend that are bringing advertisers back to the fourth-quarter scatter market, reports B&C’s Claire Atkinson. One buyer tells Claire: “I wouldn’t talk optimism at this point,” but since I’m not a buyer but a blogger, I’ll go ahead and put myself out there and start hoping that a strong Q4 leads us into the strong 2010 that we all want and need.

I also get the sense that TV stations are starting to hire again after cutting all their high-priced talent earlier this year in order to cut costs. Of course I feel badly for the people who were let go, but I’m happy to see movement in the industry again. Just today I read that WABC New York hired a reporter and an anchor from America’s hinterlands: Reporter Darla Miles has been hired on from Belo’s WFAA Dallas, and Rob Powers, weeknight co-anchor at ABC’s WTVG Toledo, was named WABC’s weekend sports anchor. I thought that was interesting because ABC is looking outside of New York and other big markets for new, fresh (cheap?) talent. Yes, it’s a bummer for previously well-paid TV talent, but it’s probably an economic reset that the industry needed to undergo. TV stations are no longer the cash machines that they were when the big conglomerates purchased them, so it’s time to stop acting like they are.

What do you think? Are you encouraged by this fall’s early returns or do you think I’m getting a little overenthusiastic way too soon? It certainly wouldn’t be the first time.