The Measure of Success: Why It's Harder to Gauge Hits By Early Ratings

Michael Schneider
Jaimie Alexander, Blindspot; Abigail Breslin, Emma Roberts, Scream Queens, Miss Piggy, Animal, Muppets, Jennifer Carpenter as Agent Rebecca Harris, Jake McDorman, Limitless
Clockwise from top left: Barbara Nitke/NBC; Steve Dietl/FOX; Nicole Wilder/ABC; Michael Parmelee/CBS

To paraphrase the title of Neil Patrick Harris’ new variety show, the broadcast networks are not having their Best Time Ever this fall.

Some of the fall’s most anticipated new series, including ABC’s The Muppets, NBC’s Heroes Reborn and Fox’s Scream Queens, are off to slow starts, while several returning series (like ABC’s Once Upon a Time and CBS’ NCIS: Los Angeles) are showing signs of viewership erosion.

Not all is negative, of course: Fox’s Empire returned with a lion’s roar on September 23.

But network execs say viewer habits are rapidly changing, and those initial day-after ratings only tell part of the story. “The amount of time-shifting and non-linear viewing is astounding compared to where we were as recently as a year or two ago,” says Fox TV Group chairman Gary Newman. “We’re not trying to draw too many conclusions from live+same day ratings.”

Slow Start for Scream Queens; Huge Jump for Empire

Fox was on the defensive after Scream Queens premiered on Sept. 22 to a paltry 4 million viewers. After three days of DVR and VOD usage, plus 1 million views on streaming platforms Hulu and Fox Now, that number lifted to a more respectable 7.3 million.

In week two, on Sept. 29, Scream Queens averaged 3.5 million viewers, but climbed to 5.2 million in Live+3 ratings, and in the key adults 18-49 demo, opened to a 1.4 rating and then lifted after three days to a 2.3 rating. This week, the show opened to a 1.2 rating in the demo; Fox is projecting it will rise to a 1.8 rating.

Already huge Empire, meanwhile, just got even bigger with three-day DVR and VOD lift. The show’s Season 2 premiere jumped from 16.2 million to 20.8 million, and in week two it grew from 13.7 million to 18 million viewers.

“There clearly is a preference for viewers to watch this on platforms that are not being measured in those live/same day ratings,” Newman says. “We’re in a situation where one-size analysis doesn’t fit all.”

Advertisers pay for viewers who actually watch commercials, which means viewership lift from ad-zapping DVRs doesn’t help much. But viewers are forced to watch commercials on VOD, Hulu and Fox Now, which means the network is also able to make money off that audience.

“If we do a good job of monetizing our non-linear and delayed viewing, then a person watching within the three day window is going to be a viewer we can still [count to advertisers],” Newman says. “It’s a game-changer in how we look at the business.”

Tracking the The Muppets; Keeping an Eye on Scream Queens

ABC is likely hoping to look at The Muppets’ overall ratings picture the same way, given the show’s disappointing live+same day ratings. After all, like Fox did for Scream Queens, ABC spent a great deal of marketing dollars and effort to launch Kermit, Miss Piggy and company.

The Muppets premiered Sept. 22 with a strong 9 million viewers (which increased to 11.1 million in Live+3 viewers), but in week two the show averaged 5.8 million viewers (lifting to 7.2 million). This past Tuesday, the show sunk to 4.9 million viewers.

DVR/VOD lift is nice, but it can’t hide the fact that shows like The Muppets and Scream Queens are declining each week.

CBS Senior Executive Vice President Kelly Kahl says initial ratings are still an important first tool to gauge a show’s performance. “When you look at those early morning numbers it’s still directional,” he says. “You can still maybe spot something that does well out of the box or stumbles badly.”

But, he adds, “To render a verdict the day after is lunacy. It’s just too hard to look at a number the next morning and determine if something is a hit or not. Certainly you can get guidance from those numbers, but it’s far from telling the whole story. The vast majority of shows are in the middle.”

That’s why it’s so hard to gauge how most new shows are performing. (Media reports have taken to using bland qualifiers like “solid” and “OK” to describe initial numbers.)

Shows With the Greatest Promise

So far, NBC’s Blindspot, CBS’ Limitless and ABC’s Quantico are showing the greatest early promise. Blindspot’s three-week live+same day viewership trend is 10.6 million to 9.1 million to 9.1 million. The first three episodes of Limitless have averaged 9.9 million, 9.7 million and 9.6 million. In two showings, Quantico averaged 7.1 million and 7 million. In this day and age, the steady performance of those shows makes them potential hits.

In other words, fans of Blindspot, Limitless and Quantico have nothing to worry about. But ABC won’t be shelving The Muppets and Fox won’t be yanking Scream Queens so quickly either. Both shows represent major investments for the networks’ parent companies–The Muppets is still an important franchise for ABC owner Disney, and the Fox Television Group has an extensive relationship with Scream Queens executive producer Ryan Murphy. Besides, there’s a lot more than first-night ratings to consider for these shows: International deals, streaming syndication and more now also play into these decisions. (Nothing’s certain for next season, of course, but those decisions aren’t made until next May.)

With so much uncertainty about how to read the ratings, Kahl says the networks are more patient in keeping shows on the air.

“The great thing about having these different data points coming in is it gives us more accurate information to make a judgement, and it gives us more time,” he says. “Points of information to make a judgement, and it gives us some time. You want to give shows time to find themselves. And you’re looking for a little kernel of positive news that allows you to keep the show on. With the digital and streaming and VOD, now there is more information along the way that offers the potential to say, ‘slow down here.’”

Kahl says, in an ideal world, no one would see any ratings for the first three weeks of a new show’s run.

“Then you’d unwrap it one day and see what had been going on, and viewers wouldn't get tainted with news that a show didn't make it, or that no one’s watching this show,” he says. “There wouldn’t be any snap judgements. But that's never going to happen.”