James Hibberd just did something on his blog that I've been meaning to do for a while now, which is look at comparative ratings (what X show did last week compared to this week, across an entire night) to illustrate how most shows are losing viewers, not just the unpopular ones.
Meaning, I hope, that a show is not implicitly unpopular just because fewer and fewer people are watching it. (h/t AICN).
This is actually something that I assume people have been aware of for a while now, but I'm beginning to question the cause. There was evidence showing that cable networks were bleeding off viewers from the broadcast networks with their new-found interest in original dramas, but those shows don't seem to be gaining enough viewers to account for the people deserting network television. Mad Men on AMC -- which has won the Outstanding Drama Emmy for two years in a row -- has shown steady growth across season premiers with less than one million people watching the series debut, but 2.8 million tuning in for the third season premier this past August. Warehouse 13 on SyFy has shown growth like that but on a much shorter scale, from 3.5 million watching the pilot up to 4.4 million seeing the sixth episode.
But shifting channels doesn't come close to accounting for the falloff on Friday night.
According to Hibberd's numbers, which I haven't verified, every single show lost viewers in the 18-49 demographic between September 25th and October 2nd except Dateline. Some of that can be explained by cable, certainly. The series premier of Stagate Universe drew 2.35 million viewers and a 1.12 in the demo -- good enough for 8th on the Friday list just under Law & Order. But there wasn't a genre franchise premier on other cable channels that night and whatever SGU may have drawn from Dollhouse (13th) certainly wasn't enough to account for every other show except Dateline taking a hit.
And it's unlikely that a show like SGU would draw people who regularly watch Dateline, 20/20, Jay Leno (who is hemorrhaging viewers) and the spook shows that topped the night in the demo (Medium, Ghost Whisperer.)
But you can't fault people losing interest in television entirely, either. The Emmys were up this year and football is doing some of its best numbers ever on NBC and ESPN. CSI has fallen off but that's mostly due to William Peterson leaving. NCIS and Criminal Minds are riding sky high right now and reality shows don't seem to be hurting much.
More and more people are watching television online, but again, like cable, that medium isn't gaining people at the same rate that the networks are losing them. Most shows are getting stale faster than before and simply aren't being replaced with new hits, because nobody is creating new hits. This results in a giant mass of people flipping from channel to channel, temporarily boosting one show before moving to another, hoping to find a home somewhere.
Heroes was a big hit for NBC, but what came after? The whole rest of that season was pretty dead for drama, as was last year, and this year doesn't exactly look any better. Virtuality from Ron Moore sounded good, and was decently reviewed, but FOX didn't have the balls to order it to series. Dollhouse is a good new drama but FOX premetively murdered it by putting it in a Friday night timeslot that has killed a dozen different shows this decade.
Terminator: SCC started big (17m viewers) but flamed out fast (dead at ~5 million) and Fringe, which I thought was medicore at best but it has its fanbase (now shrinking substantially), is also struggling all of the sudden, now in the 5 million range which is down from the ~9 million it was enjoying last season.
There are lessons to be learned from all of this, and clear paths to innovation.
Get off the ground and get back in the game The broadcast networks need to start competing with cable by going to a year around schedule. Allowing someone to drift to AMC during the summer and fall in love with a new drama like Mad Men increases the chances that they'll look for something else to watch on AMC when they get bored or when that show goes on hiatus, instead of hitting a network.
Dominant, killer schedules are history The days of multiple hit shows like CSI and NCIS running on a single night, on a single network, are gone. Everyone wants to build the next Must See Thursday or whatever NBC had like 15 years ago, but that's simply not possible.
If you get a show with 20 million viewers, you didn't accomplish the job that is expected of you, you won the damn lottery. Five million people watching Dollhouse is enough to keep that show on the air so long as the budget remains reasonable and the network accepts reality, and if it hadn't been aborted prematurely on Friday nights, there's no way it'd be fighting against a cable show like Stargate Universe for viewers.
If that show gets canceled, it'll be because FOX falsely believes it can replace it with a 9+ million viewer show like Fringe, or a hit like House, only that's a pipe dream. That's not going to happen. The networks are still living in 90s when they could kill a Dollhouse and expect to get an X-Files in return, but you can forget it.
Those days are gone.
Reality is crushing opportunities The networks need to start shoving some reality shows overboard to make room for more pilots -- or move reality to the summer to unfairly crush cable -- and then they need to start ordering more pilots and at least airing them in good faith. If you like a pilot script enough to give someone a million bucks to shoot it, then have the courage to order it to series and give it a chance to work.
All the second guessing that networks do by ordering pilots that they just end up throwing out is a self destructive waste of time and money. Every pilot shot but aired as a movie burns up a chance to find the next Lost or even Cheers. Both shows started slow, in fact Cheers was the lowest rated show of the year when it debuted, but both grew substantially after.
Weekend warriors The networks need to reclaim the weekend. There's nothing but junk other than one football game on Sunday night, during which the networks could be making lots of money if they really wanted to. Saturday and Sunday nights used to be TV movie night, a defining attribute for some networks, but for whatever reason they've completely abandoned two days out of seven to other mediums.
That's 44 days when the networks might as well be broadcasting static during a 22-week run, over a month worth of days they could be making at least a token attempt to sit people down in front of the TV so that they can make some money.
It's time to catch people lazing around on the couch and hit them hard with edgy, quality original entertainment instead of ceding that ground to Netflix and the Internet.
So the problem isn't people leaving the networks for cable, although that is a problem, nor is it people going online or people turning off the TV altogether. It's people turning on the TV, looking for something good, finding nothing or unwilling to watch something that is good that they know is about to be dumped -- something like Dollhouse -- and then turning off the TV, repeating that behavior night after night.
Correction: I mistakenly put Mad Men on A&E instead of AMC. All instances of A&E have been replaced. Thank you for the correction Michael.