The summer television season in the United States was once a barren terrain consisting of re-broadcasted programming from the main television ratings “sweeps periods”, also known as “reruns”. It has also been a time for some limited engagement mini-series type events, and when I was a child I remember ABC TV out of New York running children’s movies in primetime slots during the summer months. The other broadcast channels would use the primetime slots to broadcast “second run movies” during the week, and especially on Saturday nights from May through early September.
That dynamic then changed slightly to a situation where the “Big Four” networks (later adding CW Network, Univision, and My Network Television) would be comfortable in conceding the summer months to the cable networks. They would let the cable networks dominate the ratings without putting much effort into production of any new programming options.
Eventually, due to the growth of cable and satellite television providers, and the advent of internet streaming services such as Netflix and Amazon; the major networks decided to become real competitive players in the once dormant summer broadcasting period.
Summer Ratings Heat Up
The decision by the “Big Four” broadcasters (plus the CW network which skews towards the key summer demographic: kids, tweens, teens, and young adults all home from school) has created a scenario where the summer TV ratings and subsequent advertising dollars are becoming a growing ancillary revenue stream for the networks.
The timing of the decision about 4 years ago was right too, Americans were caught in the grip of an economic recession. Many families were forced to forego their usual summer vacation plans, and very hot periods of weather in the summer of 2010 and 2011 kept people indoors which drove up television viewership levels.
Each of the “Big Four” networks have, over the course of the past two to three years, developed their own “mainstay” show which drives their summer programming. Currently, it is 12 weeks into the summer television season (which begins the day after the May sweeps period ends) so I thought it would be an ideal time to review the ratings for this summer.
First, some background on each network and their approach to summer programming:
- NBC – their approach at “the Peacock” to the summer months centers around two programs: America’s Got Talent (A.G.T.) and Night Shift. They run the A.G.T. talent search program on two nights: Tuesday (new content) and Wednesday (the results show). The show has been a huge success for the network and is a family friendly show which is appealing in the summer.
- CBS – they bank their success on science fiction type programming to capture the interest of the crucial 18-49 ratings demographic with Under The Dome (which set summer ratings records for them in 2013) and a new program featuring Academy Award winning actress, Halle Berry, called Extant. The strategy at CBS, like everything else they do lately, has been very successful. Extant has the best ratings of any new show this summer. Then the long time mainstay program The Big Brother reality series came from out of nowhere to outperform expectations and become a huge hit for the network this summer.
- ABC – the summer season is jump started by the NBA Finals with live sports television being the new gold standard for television ratings. This summer’s edition of basketball’s biggest series provided a huge ratings boost to the network with a 6.1 rating and a 20 share in the 18-49 demo per Nielsen. Then in mid-June (the NBA Finals ended on Father’s Day) the network shifts to their other summer centerpiece The Bachelor/Bachelorette reality series depending on where they are in that cycle. The summer of 2014 brought a Bachelorette series into the mix which ended up being the 8th most watched program in total viewers and made it into the Top 10 at the 10th spot of top ratings for the 18-49 age group with a 2.07 Nielsen rating.
- FOX – their strategy was to reintroduce a short series run of their one-time hit show 24 starring Kiefer Sutherland, called 24 Live Another Day which is an action/suspense thriller type program. The strategy worked with the program in the Top 5 for overall viewers this summer. Their other featured summer program is the cooking competition series with the volatile and unpredictable celebrity chef Gordon Ramsey titled Master Chef.
Summer TV: By the Numbers
After 12 weeks, the summer TV ratings have solidified to the point where some finite results can be determined. The ratings from Nielsen are based on the total of 115.6 million television households in the United States with a single ratings point representing 1% or 1.156 million households tuned to the program. The share is the percentage of all the televisions in use during that time slot which are tuned to a specific program. In the most recent data from Nielsen, the ratings breakdown is as follows:
Total Ratings by Network:
- ABC and NBC are tied at the top of the leader board in the total ratings with a 1.4 and a 5 share in the 18-49 demographic. However NBC has the edge between the two in total viewers with 5.48 million compared to ABC with 5.1 million – both figures for both respective networks are down 7% from last summer.
- FOX is in third place, just barely, with a 1.2 rating and a 4 share of the 18-49 demographic which is down 14% from last summer.
- CBS is in fourth place with a 1.1 rating and a 4 share of 18-49 which is down 8% from the summer of 2013. The silver lining is that CBS averages 5.83 million primetime viewers this summer, which demonstrates the trend of older viewers who tend to be loyal to the network.
- CW Network (joint venture between CBS and Warner Brothers) is last with a 0.3 rating and 1 share of 18-49. However their total viewership number is 7% higher than last summer.
Top Shows by Total Viewers
- America’s Got Talent (Tuesday) = 12.5 million average
- America’s Got Talent (Wednesday)= 10.3 million average
- Under The Dome = 10.1 million average
- Extant = 9 million average (best new show)
- 24: Live Another Day = 8.55 million average
- Night Shift = 8.3 million average
- Unforgettable = 7.65 million average
- Bachelorette = 7.35 million average
- Big Brother (Sunday) = 7 million average
- Big Brother (Wednesday) = 7 million average
Top Shows in 18-49 demographic
The following are the top shows in the 18-49 demographic which is important to note because while another show might have more total viewers, the shows that rank highly in this list can charge more for advertising time which generates more revenue for the network. This list is calculated by overall 18-49 group rating:
- America’s Got Talent (Tuesday) = 3.1
- Big Brother (Thursday) = 2.49
- Big Brother (Sunday) = 2.45
- Big Brother (Wednesday) = 2.43
- Under the Dome = 2.43
- 24: Live Another Day = 2.39
- America’s Got Talent (Wed.) = 2.38
- Master Chef = 2.31
- Hell’s Kitchen = 2.16
- Bachelorette = 2.07
- American Ninja Warrior = 1.92
- So You Think You Can Dance= 1.84
- Night Shift = 1.83
- Extant = 1.68
The cursory review of these results provides apparent conclusions on the demographics of certain programs. A show such as Big Brother is at the bottom of the Top 10 in overall viewers, yet it compromises the second, third, and fourth place slots in the 18-49 demographic which aptly reflects the younger audience for the program.
Stephen King’s science fiction concept, Under the Dome, is third in overall viewers with a whopping 10.1 million viewers for a summer show, but it ranks 5th in the 18-49 demo with a 2.43 rating. That reflects two issues, a stronger viewership in older viewers which is interesting given the content of the show, and a loss in viewers that is trending downward. The show has been killing off popular cast members, causing some viewers, my wife and I included, to discontinue viewership of the program.
The reboot of Jack Bauer’s character in 24: Live Another Day is 5th in overall viewers and 6th in 18-49 aged viewers which demonstrates the appeal to that demographic almost exclusively.
The ABC reality series The Bachelorette, is 8th in total viewers and 10th in the 18-49 category proving that the program appeals to a range of audiences including an older audience of people over 50. This series is the only top 10 program for ABC and it hurts the network because they cannot sell advertising time for the show anywhere near the rates that the other 3 networks can command. NBC has A.G.T. which is the top show in 18-49 ratings, CBS has Big Brother which is a powerhouse show for the target demographic as well as Under The Dome, and FOX has 24 which is 6th in the coveted 18-49 ratings.
Finally, the group of shows Extant, Unforgettable, and Night Shift are great examples of programs that receive excellent overall ratings and limited to no 18-49 demographic support. Extant pulls down an average of 9 million viewers, yet it is fourteenth on the 18-49 list. Night Shift on NBC is very similar with 8.3 million total viewers and a thirteenth place showing in the 18-49 bracket. Unforgettable on CBS is the 7th most watched show of the summer and is not anywhere near the top 15 in the 18-49 group meaning that the majority of those viewers are older based on the time slot and data, they are not younger than 18.
Summer Ratings Outlook
The data is clear, the broadcast networks have come to compete with the cable networks and the internet streaming services for viewers and ratings. Some of the networks have been pretty innovative in producing limited summer series which have captured viewers, others have gone the reality show route or the talent competition route to draw in viewers.
This data proves that many Americans enjoy watching television and demand more choices and options, even in the summer time. The data has even driven some networks to end their summer series during the same week their Fall television programs are set to premiere. A few years ago that decision would have been unthinkable.
It is also apparent from this summer television data that whether you are watching Jack save the day on 24, Big Jim and the next problem the dome will dish out on Under the Dome, Halle Berry’s struggles with re-entry from a long “solo” mission in space on Extant, or the next contestant to move forward on America’s Got Talent; summer television programming is here to stay.
The summer television terrain is no longer a place for second run movies and rebroadcasts of earlier programs, it is a place dominated by new content and original programming. That is a welcome change for both the networks and the viewers.
(Ratings data, demographic data, advertising revenue data, total TV market/share data courtesy of AC Nielsen, Ad Age, The Wire, and TV Guide.com)