Heading into the new fall TV season, conventional wisdom held that reboots and remakes were key to audience sampling; the networks could at least count on legacy hits like “The Big Bang Theory,” “This Is Us” and “Modern Family”; the NFL had lost some of its ratings mojo; and Fox’s decision to revive “Last Man Standing” was a head scratcher.
It’s only been one week, but here’s what we now know: the “Murphy Brown” reboot and “Magnum P.I.” remake didn’t get much early sampling; returning shows like “The Big Bang Theory,” “This Is Us” and “Modern Family” are off by double digits; the NFL is up year-to-year; and “Last Man Standing” opened to Fox’s best comedy ratings in nearly seven years.
Fall TV is a reminder of that old William Goldman quote that “nobody knows anything.” That may not quite be true — if you look under the hood at all of this year’s premiere week trends, it’s easy to see now what went right — or wrong.
A caveat: It’s only been one week. Shows that look like hits may still collapse by midseason. And season-defining trends may have yet to emerge. But IndieWire asked a group of network scheduling and strategy execs to give their take on Week 1, and here are four takeaways:
Despite being promoted as its final season, the premiere of “The Big Bang Theory” was down 39 percent vs. last year in the adults 18-49 demo. Last year’s big newcomer, “The Good Doctor,” was down 41 percent. Veteran reality series “Dancing with the Stars” and “The Voice” are both down more than 20 percent. “This Is Us” was off 25 percent, “How to Get Away with Murder” slumped 25 percent, “Empire” was down 23 percent, and “Modern Family” is off 27 percent.
The list goes on. “It does seem like longevity is harder to come by,” said one exec. “Flat is the new up, but this is disappointing.”
To be fair, network TV as a whole continues to slide, which means most of these shows remain time period leaders. Add in time-shifted viewing, and some of that erosion is recovered. As one exec noted, delayed numbers (via DVR and on-demand usage) continue to be more impressive — although it’s TV’s biggest shows that enjoy most of that lift. “As always, the rich get richer,” one exec said.
Through the first four weeks of the football season, CBS’ NFL viewership is up 7 percent vs. last year. NBC’s “Sunday Night Football” has experienced three straight weeks of double-digit growth. “Thursday Night Football,” in its first year on Fox (shared with NFL Network), has seen a bump, thanks in part to a big game between the Los Angeles Rams and the Minnesota Vikings. And ESPN’s “Monday Night Football” appears back on the rise.
Given Donald Trump’s attempt to politicize the NFL and turn off football fans — not to mention ongoing controversies over how the league handles issues such as domestic abuse and sexual assault, as well as concerns over players’ brain injuries — the fact that the NFL has managed to recover from last year’s ratings dips is surprising. Most live events are continuing to see audience dips given the explosion in viewer choice, and it was assumed that the NFL would continue to erode.
Instead, Fox in particular is benefiting from football: Thanks to the addition of Thursday night football, the network was No. 2 for premiere week among adults 18-49, with a 1.6 rating — a whopping 60 percent improvement over a year ago. CBS, which had Thursday Night Football last year, dipped 26 percent without it in primetime.
The networks continue to flock to familiar titles in order to cut through the marketing clutter, and it works to a point. The return of “Roseanne” was a monster hit for ABC last year, and “Will & Grace” opened strong for NBC. But by the end of last year, the numbers for “Will & Grace” had dropped — and we’ll never know how “Roseanne” might have done this year. (“The Conners” will likely get some curiosity tune-in at the start.) But after the first week of the 2018-2019 TV season, it appears that audience fatigue has set in.
The hyped return of “Murphy Brown” did OK — 7.5 million viewers and a 1.1 rating in the demo — but far below what other recent nostalgic reunions have done with audiences. And the new remake of “Magnum P.I.” averaged 8.1 million viewers and a 1.2 rating in the demo, landing in third place for the hour.
“I do think there’s some fatigue,” said one exec of reboot mania. Added another exec: “Never in the history of TV has it been harder for new series to breakout, be unique, and ‘separate from the pack.’ Getting the audience’s attention is so difficult and has become an arms race of marketing dollars and unique campaigns to try and encourage viewers to sample a new show.”
Turns out viewers were indeed clamoring for more Tim Allen. Not only was the return of “Last Man Standing” — after a year off — the most-watched comedy on Fox (excluding NFL nights) in eight years, but it was the show’s highest rating since its Season 2 premiere on ABC in 2012. Along with the premiere of “The Cool Kids,” it gave Fox its highest-rated Friday night with entertainment program since 2009. “Broader shows do find an audience,” said one executive. “And ‘Last Man Standing’ is a broader comedy than what Fox has put on in the past.”
Then there’s “Manifest,” the NBC drama that has now set the Peacock network’s record for biggest three-day lift among DVR and VOD users. The show opened to 10.4 million viewers the night-of, and added 5.7 million more viewers in three days. At 16.1 million, “Manifest” is now NBC’s most-watched series premiere in six years, since “The Blacklist” in 2013.
Delayed viewing continues to provide network execs some hope in a sea of ratings declines. As one exec noted, “Even with fragmentation, more than 112 million people watched broadcast TV last week. While the numbers are shrinking there are still millions and millions of people watching and enjoying great television.”
But added another exec, with perhaps the best analysis of them all: “It’s just one week… everybody stay calm!”