Last week it was announced that CBS won the coveted May Sweeps period - the Nielsen ratings race that happens every May. This is is the final week that Nielsen is collecting data for their national May research “book.” That's what us media geeks use
to access value to their programs in the form of rating points (which is a percentage of the audience - 1 rating point equals 1 % of the audience). Naturally, the higher the rating, the higher the price. And the timing of this particular data period is most important as it coincides with each of the major networks “Upfronts” - their annual presentation to advertisers and agencies to try to collect major ad spends and budgets upfront of the next season that launches next fall.
So it’s an important time in TV advertising land, and while one story was CBS accession to the top, the parallel story is Fox’s demise. They have won the May sweeps 11 years straight, and toppled to #2 this year (in the key Women 25-54 age period). Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you know the reason - American Idol, and specifically their judges. They bet on the traditional reality TV formula of drama and outbursts of anger & general “train-wreck-ery” in casting two divas, Mariah Carey and Nicki Manaj, but it backfired. The tension they created was palpable, distracting and overall made for bad TV -- and the viewers left in droves. Their finale which aired during the May sweeps lost nearly half it’s viewers since 2011 - 16MM from 32MM - and it's finale lost to Big Bang Theory-- the first time a competing show has ever beat an American Idol finale. The result was not only the loss of the May sweeps, but heads have started to roll - Mike Darnell, head of reality TV at Fox is out, and 3 of 4 AI judges so far will not return.
We’ve covered what FOX did wrong, but what is CBS doing right? Why are they keeping viewers in this TV universe where go-to ratings behemoths are dying a slow, severe death? Here’s our analysis:
- Protects their content. While American Idol in it’s knee-jerk reactions to ratings erosions week-to-week came up with new gimmicks to try to get online viewers, by making it accessible online with new ways to vote and creating an app, CBS has taken a different strategy and it seems to be working. They keep their first-run premium content only on TV, not online, so you have to tune in to view it. (Now they do have some content on Hulu and Netflix, but it's limited and not the premium library - plus they structure the licenses so they make a lot of money off of these deals). This summer they will experiment with the Stephen King series Under the Dome by making it available via streaming to Amazon Prime members (albeit 5 days after original airing), but that's the trick that's working for CBS (so far). If it's only on TV, and it's quality content, then the viewers will come to that content.
- Diversifies their line-up - CBS' whole lineup isn’t based around one reality show (like NBC’s The Voice and Fox’s American Idol) or one age demographic (CW). They have strong reality shows (Survivor, Amazing Race), successful drama (Elementary, Person of Interest), crime dramas, and sit-coms for lots of different age demos (Big Bang Theory, 2 Broke Girls for younger demos and Mike and Molly for the middle-aged crowd). It seems to be something for everyone (as long as "everyone" is time-slot viewing TV viewers that are traditional and skew a little older - ie. do not view online yet... which brings me to my next point).
- Skews older - Like it or not, TV viewership like newspaper readership skews to an older, set-in-their-ways crowd. And CBS’s content, with their procedurals, laugh-track comedies & 13-year-old reality shows tends to cater to it. But again, it's working for now. But as we watch the TV medium shift along with all other mediums towards digital, as consumers begin to demand more accessibility of their content online, and as the millenials age and become a more prominent demographic, it's doubtful CBS' strategy will continue to work.
That's our take. What network do you watch? What programs? Leave us a comment and let us know.