Network television ratings are dropping like never before — and nobody knows why
This spring has been a rough one for the American TV networks, all of which have seen their primetime ratings take a sudden, unexplained nosedive. Reliable hits like Dancing With the Stars and American Idol posted their lowest ratings ever, while new series such as NBC’s Awake and ABC’s Missing started off with low numbers that kept getting lower.
According to a New York Times story by Bill Carter, during a four-week period beginning March 13, the four major networks each shed a significant number of viewers — Fox, for example, lost more than 700,000 — and these losses are across the board. Modern Family, for example, achieved its lowest ratings to date, while even buzz-worthy shows like New Girl and The Voice saw steep declines.
The weird part is that there doesn’t seem to be any one reason behind this ratings plunge, leading network executives to scratch their heads and try to figure out what the hell is going on — although there are some theories:
It’s nice out?
Every spring, overall TV viewership tends to decline as the weather grows milder, the days grow longer and viewers haul themselves off the couch. Because this spring has been nicer than usual throughout many parts of the U.S., this may have prompted viewers to do something other than watch TV.
Carter reports that media analyst Michael Nathanson suspects the steady decline in American Idol’s ratings is causing an overall ratings dip, since people tend to watch Idol live and then stick around to watch other stuff as it airs. With fewer people sitting down to watch Idol, the people that have fled Idol may also have stopped watching other shows live.
The rise of the DVR is also a likely culprit; it’s already been established that DVRs have pretty much killed the traditional 10 p.m. network drama, since viewers have adopted the habit of using that 10 o’clock hour to watch shows they’ve recorded earlier. Add growing competition from Netflix, Hulu, iTunes, YouTube, illegal downloading and other non-network methods of watching television — along with the fact that many people now watch shows on devices other than TV sets — and you’ve got a perfect storm as increasing numbers of viewers eschew live TV for watching it whenever they want.
Another theory is that because more viewers record shows they miss and watch them later, hardly anyone needs to watch reruns to catch up on missed episodes anymore, and reruns now get far lower ratings than they used to; March is traditionally the time when networks air a lot of reruns.
Not only are the TV networks competing with each other, they’re also competing with hundreds of niche specialty channels. Long gone are the days when a family would gather around the household’s single TV to watch one show; today, each member of a family is likely to watch programming specific to that person’s unique tastes and demographic profile. It’s simple math that when you split a pie into hundreds of pieces instead of just three, the pieces will be a lot smaller.
Or maybe . . .
Could there be a far simpler explanation for this season’s mass exodus of viewers? New York-based ratings guru Marc Berman, Editor-in-Chief of TV Media Insights, is convinced that viewers fled network television because this season’s shows just weren’t that good.
“It’s the programming, plain and simple,” says Berman. “Viewers are just not overly interested in the type of new available programming options.”
Unfortunately, Berman doesn’t see the networks’ upcoming fall lineups offering much that will change things. “The new batch of fall 2012 primetime entries is unlikely to break that pattern,” he says. “Unlike that classic 2004-05 season, when the masses were introduced to creative and mass-appeal hits like Desperate Housewives and Lost, there is a definite absence of the next ‘big’ thing.”