I really wanted to figure out a way to make FX turning 25 my biggest story of the week. Fox launched a cable channel that helped define the prestige TV era as much as any other twenty-five years ago tomorrow. (Decider had a good roll up of the top 25 that brought this to my attention.) That feels like it should be a bigger story.
Yet, birthdays aren’t really game changing news, even for the channel that brought us. It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, my favorite series on FX. My favorite episode for Hollywood in-jokes is “The Gang Tries to Win an Award” which utterly lampoons the Emmy voting process.
So let’s look bigger than one channel. Like at all of TV.
Most Important Story of the Week – TV Ratings Continue to Decline, in pictures
The TV ratings for the 2018-2019 season are in, so let’s summarize what happened. I have three takes that range from “this is bad” to “oh this is controversial ”.
Bad News/Uncontroversial Take – Broadcast Ratings are Down
Well, ratings are down again. And CBS is still on top. And NBC is on top with the key demo (18-45 year olds). On top, though, means just 8.9 million and 1.6 million people, respectively. Those numbers are pretty small compared to broadcast TV’s peak or even just fifteen years ago. Here’s my version of Deadline’s chart, showing this for the last three years:
Source: Nielsen, via Deadline
So ratings are down another 7% after falling 3% last year. This matches the annual declines I’ve been monitoring. Here’s the same measurements, but from January to December instead of the broadcast season. (I had pulled these last fall to make a point about CBS.)
Source: Nielsen, via IndieWire
So two different ways to subtly measure the data, which both show declines. Also, I’ll bang on another point I made about CBS last fall. For the “old people network”, which is the stereotype, it has more young people watch it than ABC, and tied with Fox. So proportionally, yes it has more non-key demo viewers, but it has the same in total numbers. Does one of those things matter more than the other? Maybe, maybe not.
Learning Point – TV Series are declining, but winner still takes all
Every year Michael Schneider does a list of the top 100 shows on cable and broadcast. I love reading through this list. Here’s the top 14, for example:
Source: Nielsen, via Variety
I love it even more as further proof of my favorite learning point, which is to show that TV is, like all entertainment, “winner take all”, meaning that most shows get hardly any ratings, while a few are monsters. Given that FX estimates that between basic cable and broadcast there were 300 scripted series, and that Schneider’s lowest rated series was Hell’s Kitchen with 4 million viewers, we could basically add 200 more scripted series that had under four million viewers. Doing that, here’s how the winner takes all economics look for the traditional TV bundle (with some assumptions for that extra 200 series.)
Actually, since Schneider’s list includes reality and sports, who knows how many more reality shows were made last year? I looked and couldn’t find it. The point is it would make the winner-takes-all shape even sharper.
Potentially Good News/Controversial Take – Top TV Series May Be Getting Bigger
So the inspiration for this hot take comes from Axios’s (must read) media newsletter by Sara Fischer. Her take? Well, TV series finales are getting smaller. She called this TV’s moving goal posts. Here’s the image from her newsletter:
Pretty damning stuff. But it seemed like it was really trying to tell a story about decline over time. To better visualize this, I took the data and put it in a scatter plot by year to see the story over time:
Still pretty serious decline. Except something bothered me about it. I mean, I’ve been pretty deep into the Game of Thrones ratings lately. And everyone knows that a ton of people watch the series after it airs. With the latest data, Game of Thrones is getting 44 million viewers per episode. If you assume all those people watched within say a week of the final, then GoT is a top 6 show of this data set.
And this makes sense: with DVRs, multiple airings and digital, do we care about how many people watch a show, or how many happen to watch it live? This is always my thing about data: you have to know why you’re asking the question. And so I tried to update this table for all the series with DVR numbers. Along the way, I found this fun image showing DVR’s rise over time:
Clearly, the rise of DVRs killed the “live watch” of series finales. (Along with a stretch of not great broadcast series for finales.) But with the 2010 finales like Breaking Bad, Game of Thrones, How I Met Your Mother and The Big Bang Theory, a lot of people tuned in late. So I adjusted some of those series up if I could find the data, and dropped Will and Grace, which wasn’t a series finale, and had my own new data set. I also kicked up The Sopranos since it had delayed viewing and multiple airings too.
I’ll be honest, I had hoped with this table the trend line would be flat, or near to it. And it didn’t go quite that far. The trend for series finales is still…down.
So this take isn’t that hot. But look at the decline in the equation. Instead of series finales losing over a million viewers per year, now it is down to 700K viewers or so. If you pulled just the 2000s, the line would be flat. Yes, I had to make a ton of assumptions, but in the question of, “Is the monoculture dead?”, well I think Game of Thrones is a pretty good argument that one truly great show can still draw in a significant amount of viewers. I wouldn’t go so far as to say that the trend is reversing, but it’s flat. (The biggest shows on “TV” aren’t getting smaller anymore.)
Bonus Point: Eurovision Viewership Over Time