What a difference a decade makes in broadcast primetime
Going back to the 2002-03 TV season to examine the
programming viewership landscape yields some pretty interesting
findings—including numbers that would make any network programmers and
advertisers wish they could reel back the years.
The top 10 primetime series that season, according to
Nielsen ratings data, were:
American Idol (Wed.)
American Idol (Thurs.)
WIll & Grace
The top-rated program of the current 2012-13 season is NBC's
Sunday NightFootball with a 7.8 18-49 rating and 20.9 million
viewers. But no other primetime show from this season would have ranked in the top
10 among adults 18-49 during the 2002-03 season, and perhaps not even in the top
The second highest-rated 18-49 demo show this season is CBS
sitcom The BigBang Theory with a 4.9. The 10th
highest rated in the demo is CBS sitcom How
IMet Your Mother with a 3.2 rating. During the 2002-03 season,
Saturday night repeats of Law & Order: SVU on NBC averaged a 3.3
18-49 demo rating. But How IMet Your Mother would have beaten
Fox's big sitcom hope of that year, Andy Richter Rulesthe Universe,
which averaged a 3.1.
NFL football, however, is even more popular today that it
was a decade ago. The ABC Monday Night
Football telecasts during the 2002-03 season averaged a 7.1 18-49 rating
and 16.9 million viewers, a number that lags behind this season's NBC NFL
Sunday night telecasts.
A decade ago, fewer broadcast network primetime series than
today had median age audiences over 50. The oldest-skewing series in primetime
during the 2002-03 season was CBS newsmagazine 60 Minutes, which, with a
median age of 60, was the only show to skew out of the 50s. However, 60
Minutes during that season average 13.9 million viewers and a 2.9 18-49
rating, the latter being close to an advertisers' dream based on today's
broadcast primetime ratings in the demo. This season so far, 60 Minutes
is averaging 12.8 million viewers, so its overall popularity is still pretty
much intact and its median age audience has gone up only by maybe a year or so.
Conversely, American Idol was a true powerhouse
series in 2002-03, its second season, while this year it is clearly on the
steady decline. This season Idol is averaging a 4.8 18-49 rating on
Wednesday nights and a 4.4 on Thursdays, and in recent weeks those numbers have
been even lower. That means it's lost more than 60% of its 18-49 audience over
the past decade. And it is also averaging 6-7 million fewer viewers per night.
But its ratings this season still put it among the top 5 shows on television.
Other than 60 Minutes, some of the other older-skewing
shows at the time were CBS sitcom Becker and CBS dramas The Guardian and JAG, which all
had median age audiences of 58. CBS drama The
District had a median age audience of 57, and CBS dramas Touched by an
Angel and The Agency, and NBC drama Hunter, each had median
age audiences of 56. Drama Judging Amy on CBS had a median age of 55 and
drama Providence on NBC had a median age of 54.
The oldest-skewing scripted show on ABC was dramedy Monk with a median age of 53.
Other than Becker, the only other sitcom with a
median age audience of 50 or older during the 2002-03 season was King of
Queens on CBS, with a median age right at 50. NBC dramas Law & Order and Law & Order:
SVU and CBS drama Without a Trace had median ages of 50.
ABC dramas The Practice and NYPD Blue had
median age audiences of 48.
A middle of the pack entertainment competition series on
CBS, Star Search, averaged 10.8 million viewers and a 3.2 demo rating,
which today would make it the fourth highest-rated entertainment competition
series among viewers 18-49 behind NBC's The
Voice and the two Idol airings.
The youngest-skewing broadcast primetime series in 2002-03
was Sabrinathe Teenage Witch
on The WB, with a median age audience of 26. The WB drama Dawson's Creek
was next youngest with a median age of 27, followed by WWESmackdown on
UPN with a median age of 29, Girlfriends on UPN and the WB's Gilmore
Girls, each at 30. That list does not include Fox's animated series.
Clearly, CW execs have to look back at the ratings numbers
produced by The WB and UPN, which eventually merged to form The CW, and just
wish the clock could be turned back from these days of multiplatform viewing
and myriad electronic distractions that help keep the numbers down, especially
among younger viewers.
The WB was doing so well that season that it cancelled a
freshman drama series halfway through the season, Birds of Prey, which
was averaging 4.2 million viewers and a 2.1 18-49 rating.
During that season, The WB's most-watched series was 7th
Heaven, which averaged 6.1 million viewers and a 2.4 18-49 demo rating with
a median age audience of 35. Gilmore Girls averaged 5.2 million and a
2.3 demo rating, Everwood averaged 4.8 million with a 1.9 demo rating,
and Dawson's Creek averaged 4 million viewers with a 2.1 18-49 rating.
Ironically, Reba McEntire, who is now starring in an ABC
sitcom on Friday nights, Malibu Country, was starring a decade ago in
the Friday night WB sitcom Reba and pulling in 4.5 million viewers and a
1.7 18-49 rating. Malibu Country is
averaging 5.9 million viewers but only a 1.3 18-49 rating; needless to say, Reba's
audience has aged up over the years.
The highest rated series on UPN in the 2002-03 season was
its Thursday night edition of WWE Smackdown, which pulled in 5.4 million
viewers per week with a 2.1 18-49 rating.
A lot of the audience dynamics have changed over the past
decade with the emergence of digital TV viewers and the continued growth of DVR
usage, so it's impossible to make a real comparison. But just to show how times
have really changed, one need look only at Saturday night broadcast viewing a
Yes, the networks had already begun airing repeats on
Saturday nights, but viewers were watching them in droves compared to recent
years. While Saturday nights back then were still the lowest viewed night of the
week, repeats could still draw more than 9 million viewers for certain series.
And even Fridays were not throwaway nights for the networks.
NBC repeats of Law & Order: SVU and Law &
Order: Criminal Intent on Saturday nights during the 2002-03 season averaged
9.7 million viewers and a 3.3 18-49 demo rating, and 9.3 million and a 3.0 demo
And on Friday nights, NBC drama Providence averaged
10.9 million viewers and a 3.0 demo rating and first-run SVU's averaged 14.8 million and a 5.0
demo rating. What NBC wouldn't do for numbers like that on any night this