Television might be going through a creative Golden Age, but viewership is collapsing.
For the last 14 straight quarters, television viewership has declined. Even so, these new numbers are even more startling, and while the New York Times and those it interviews attempt to explain them, one word you won’t read is “streaming”:
In the four television weeks starting March 19, NBC lost an average of 59,000 viewers (about 3 percent) in that 18-to-49 age category compared with the same period last year, CBS lost 239,000 (8 percent), ABC lost 681,000 (21 percent) and Fox lost 709,000 (20 percent).
In the last few weeks, new viewership lows for network series have been recorded nightly among 18 to 49-year-olds, the group that still commands the highest advertising prices.
The declines have not discriminated. The bad news has been the same for hits, like ABC’s “Modern Family,” which had its lowest rating for the season (4.0 or about 5.2 million viewers) and less popular shows, like NBC’s “Community,” which descended to 1.3 (about 1.7 million viewers). Several other shows, like “Glee” and “Touch” on Fox, and “Missing” and “Suburgatory” on ABC, all hit their lowest ratings ever last week.
The losses could not have come at a worse time for the networks, which are about to enter the television upfronts, the traditional season when advertising dollars are committed for the fall season.
NBC, frankly, doesn’t have many more viewers to lose, but Fox and ABC being down 20% is jaw-dropping.
This is just as startling:
In the past, the network drop usually meant a bonanza for cable networks, which inherited those viewers. But over the same four weeks beginning in March, cable networks combined lost an average of 409,000 viewers, about 2 percent.
Explanations for this collapse make no sense and even contradict one another.
First we’re told this:
[O]verall television viewing is flat this spring, according to Nielsen research. That means viewers are using their television sets just as much this year as last year.
Then we’re told this:
Mr. Nathanson suggested one obvious suspect in the overall ratings decline has been the steep ratings drop for “American Idol” this season — more than 30 percent. He contends the struggles of “Idol” have had a disproportionate impact on the overall ratings for the live viewing of prime-time shows. “Idol,” which is a competition show broadcast live, “has in the past gotten you into the live ecosystem,” he said.
Many millions of people watched television live on “Idol” nights, he said, and with “Idol” declining, fewer people have the incentive to sit in front of the television on those nights.
But Nielsen says television viewing has stayed the same, so “fewer people have an incentive” makes no sense whatsoever.
He cited the much stronger numbers for shows last fall, when the N.F.L. dominated the ratings. “The N.F.L. brings people in live,” Mr. Nathanson said. He suggested that live television benefited from the interest in football in the fall. Spring sports do not have the same impact, he said.
That’s a non-sequitur. We’re not comparing television viewing to the fall, we’re comparing it to the same time last year.
Another explanation behind the steep decline in network shows is the way networks now parcel out episodes of their more popular offerings. Around March, they begin inserting strings of repeats, which, more than ever, viewers avoid. Jay Sures, a partner in the United Talent Agency, said his company’s research found that “the disruption of the ordered pattern of episodes is a big issue.”
But again, Nielsen says overall television viewing hasn’t dropped.
I think three things are happening:
1. We’re tired of reruns: With all the options available to us through DVRs, our personal video libraries, and streaming, we are no longer willing to sit through reruns. While the numbers above are for the broadcast nets, cable channels that mostly make a living off of syndicated reruns are also experiencing a loss of viewers.
2. Streaming, streaming, streaming: Hulu currently has over 2 million subscribers. Netflix currently has 22 million streaming subscribers. With these numbers and the amount of good television content available through streaming, the drop in network viewers actually starts to make sense.
3.Commercials: People are sick to death of commercials. Hulu offers fewer, Netflix and your DVR offer none. People, especially young people, were immune to the number of commercials you presently have to suffer through. But once they got a taste of a commercial-free environment, it’s hard to go back.
I’m legitimately confused as to why The New York Times doesn’t even float online-viewing as a possibility for this seismic shift in viewing habits.
In my mind, it’s the only thing that explains how network viewership can reach record lows and cable television not gain from that loss while people still watch the same amount of television.
Everyone is missing this story.
They’re also missing what this means for our culture as a whole, which I’ll leave for another post.