MBPT Spotlight: Another Too-Quiet November Sweeps For The Broadcast Networks

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The November sweeps period, once a major month of programming stunts and promotion by the broadcast networks, just passed the halfway point with barely any fanfare. Viewership for the Big Five English-language broadcast networks during first two weeks is down 4% compared to a similar period last season, and their 18-49 demo rating is down a cumulative 10% according to numbers reported by Nielsen.

“Sweep periods are rarely even talked about anymore,” says Billie Gold, VP, director of TV programming research at media agency Carat, “especially by the broadcast networks, except to tout it if they win. In fact, the broadcast networks rarely do special-event programming in the traditional sweeps period any more.”

Gold says NBC’s recent crossover story line “stunt” involving three of it primetime dramas—Law & Order: SVU, Chicago P.D. and Chicago Fire—did do well in the ratings but adds she is not sure the network did it to build up sweeps ratings or to just draw more attention to the three shows. And Gold says while the shows drew large audiences in the 10 million range, “they weren’t something people gathered around the watercooler the next day talking about.”

In fact, NBC is televising its live production of Peter Pan, which could indeed draw some conversation, on Dec. 4, outside the November sweeps period. But even if it turns out to be an “event” that draws a larger-than-usual audience, Gold said, “in reality, while networks might see an uptick over regularly-scheduled programming, big events just aren’t so big any more.” A lot of that is due to fragmented TV audiences and viewers now in the habit of watching programming in delayed viewing instead of making it a priority to see it live.

“I think the sweeps are an anachronism at this point,” says Brian Hughes, senior VP, Audience Analysis Lead at Magna Global. “Unfortunately, it still remains a consideration in local TV because they are the only periods we have measurement for some markets. But changes are underway that should remediate that.”

Brad Adgate, senior VP, director of research at Horizon Media agrees. “Local people meters continually measure viewing in the 25 largest TV markets so the sweeps data is no longer relevant to a lot of the larger stations.”

Adgate says the broadcast networks’ desire to air more new programming on a year-round basis makes it less important for them to focus airing new programming within the four quarterly sweep periods.

Hughes adds, “The networks all seem dedicated to year-round programming, which requires some judicious spacing of first-run episodes. And viewers aren’t constrained by time any longer, so why should measurement be?”

Gold says while 86% of all TV viewing, including broadcast, cable and syndication, is still viewed live, when it comes to broadcast primetime, only about 65% of regular-scheduled scripted programming is viewed live.

And November sweeps live viewing is down this season.

For the first two weeks of this November’s sweep period, which began Thursday, Oct. 30, the broadcast networks are cumulatively averaging 7 million viewers and a 1.8 18-49 demo rating each night. That compares to 7.3 million viewers and a 2.0 18-49 demo rating in November 2013.

NBC and The CW are both up slightly in viewers. NBC averaged 8.3 million for the first two weeks this November compared to 8.1 million last November, while The CW averaged 1.7 million viewers compared to 1.6 million last November.

CBS is once again the viewer leader after two weeks, averaging 9.5 million but down from 10.3 million last November. ABC is averaging 7.5 million viewers, down from 7.7 million, while Fox is averaging 3.8 million viewers, down from 4.2 million.

In the 18-49 demo, all of the networks are down this sweeps period so far. NBC is the leader as it was the first two weeks last November, averaging a 2.4, compared to a 2.6. ABC is averaging a 1.9, compared to a 2.0 last November; CBS is averaging a 1.8, compared to a 2.2, Fox is averaging a 1.3 vs. a 1.5, while The CW is averaging a 1.6 compared to a 1.7.

Looking at shows from last November across all the networks, only a few are drawing more viewers this November sweeps period. One of those is CBS sitcom The Big Bang Theory which is averaging 16.4 million viewers and a 4.2 18-49 demo rating compared to 14.3 million and a 3.7 last November. CBS drama Blue Bloods is averaging 11.4 million vs. 11 million but its 18-49 demo rating is down from 1.3 to 1.2. CBS drama The Good Wife is also up a bit in viewers, 10.6 million vs. 10.2 million, but its 18-49 rating is also down, to 1.4 from a 1.6. CBS sitcom Two and a Half Men, now in its final season, has averaged 9.7 million viewers for the first two weeks of November, compared to 8.3 million last November and its 18-49 rating is up to a 2.3 from a 2.1.

NBC drama Chicago Fire is up considerably in viewership this November, averaging 9.1 million viewers compared to 7.7 million last season, but Chicago Fire was part of the crossover stunt with Chicago P.D. and Law & Order: SVU. Chicago P.D. was not on last November, but Law & Order: SVU averaged 5.9 million and a 1.6 demo rating, and this November is averaging 8.5 million and a 2.0 demo rating.

Two Fox series are doing better this November but both have changed time periods. MasterChef Junior averaged 4.1 million viewers and a 1.4 demo rating last November on Friday night at 8, while this November it is averaging 5 million viewers and a 1.8 demo rating airing on Tuesday night at 8. Brooklyn Nine-Nine is averaging 3.7 million viewers and a1.8 demo rating on Sunday night compared to 3.5 million and a 1.5 demo rating last November on Tuesday night. The Simpsons on Sunday night for Fox, is averaging 5.4 million viewers and a 2.5 demo rating this November compared to 4.8 million and a 2.1 demo rating last November. ABC sitcom The Goldbergs is averaging 7.5 million and a 2.1 demo rating, compared to 5 million and a 1.6 demo rating last November.

However, for the most part, shows’ November sweeps viewing is down, including specials such as the CMA Awards on ABC, down slightly to 16.2 million from 16.8 million, and the ABC telecast of It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown, which drew 7 million last November sweeps compared to 6.3 million this year.

Even the most-watched shows on broadcast are down, other than Big Bang. The most-watched broadcast drama, NCIS on CBS is averaging 17.5 million and a 2.3 demo rating through the first two weeks, compared to 19.3 million and a 2.9 in the demo. CriminalMinds is averaging 10.1 million viewers on CBS with a 2.2 demo rating, compared to 10.7 and a 2.5 last November.

NBC’s most-watched drama, The Blacklist is averaging 9.5 million viewers and a 2.4 demo rating, compared to 10.5 and 2.9 last November.

Some series are way down this November. Fox’s second-year drama Sleepy Hollow is averaging just 4.6 million viewers and a 1.5 18-49 demo rating, compared to the first two weeks last November when it averaged 7.1 million and a 2.5 demo rating. And ABC’s second-year drama Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. is averaging just 4.3 million viewers and a 1.6 demo rating this November sweep, compared to 6.9 and 2.4 last year.

“The urgency to catch a show, even with a big guest star during a sweeps period just isn’t there the way it used to be,” Gold says.

And even the most-watched program on all of television—NBC’s Sunday Night Football—is down in viewership this November. SNF is averaging a still-solid 18.4 million and a 6.6 18-49 demo rating during the first two weeks of the sweeps, compared to 19.1 million and a 7.1 demo rating last November.

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