Yes, Broadcast-TV Ratings Are Down. No, the Sky Isn't Falling — Here's Why

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Broadcast-TV ratings may again be on the decline — as they have been since… well, for a while! — but that does not mean ABC, CBS et al are about to close up shop and leave your Zenith with nothing but test patterns. And here is the important reason why.


But,” you argue, “ratings are down! You typed it right up above! I see it with my own eyes!”

And the short retort to that is: Remember what your high school economics teacher told you about supply and demand….

The longer answer, for those interested enough to stick around:

As recently reported by Ad Age, only four broadcast-TV programs this fall — Sunday Night Football, Thursday Night Football, This Is Us and The Masked Singer — are commanding $200,000 or more per 30-second spot. Yet as recently as four years ago, 10 shows belonged to that elite club.

Notable declines during that four-year stretch include Empire, which during its blockbuster freshman run charged $500K for a 30-second spot but now gets just $170K, while How to Get Away With Murder went from $250K during its buzzy second season to now under $100K.

On the upside, however, broadcast programs including Grey’s Anatomy (now in Season 16), Chicago Med and Chicago P.D. are currently raking in more per 30-second spot than during the 2015-16 season.

All told, Upfront ad sales for the 2019-20 TV season totaled $10.8 billion, up from $10.1 billion the year prior. But how can that be, if ratings continue to be on the decline? (For example, ABC and Fox on Monday, Oct. 15, were down about 9 percent in the demo year-over-year, while CBS and NBC were deep into the double digits. On Thursday, Oct. 10, ABC and NBC were down 25 percent YOY, while Big Bang-less CBS was down a full 50 percent.)

As Brad Adgate neatly summarizes for Forbes.com, a combination of factors are able to convert dwindling ratings into greater revenue.

For one, because the elusive (and thus coveted) 18-49 demo is harder than ever to reach via traditional broadcast-TV, advertisers more than ever “pay a premium” to target that audience. And to reach as many cumulative eyeballs in that crowd as a media plan dictates, “advertisers have to buy more commercial time” than they used to.

Also boosting the networks’ annual haul is the fact that they are delivering more original content throughout the year (see ABC’s “Summer Fun & Games,” The CW’s Burden of Pandora’s Outpost Truth). And, yes, broadcasters have also been increasing commercial time per hour — which is a risky proposition, given how tempting it is to just say “Fork it!” and flip over to Netflix.

Add in the fact that the networks are more and more finding ways to “monetize” (if even for a minute sum) the streaming of episodes, and it all adds up to a solid bottom line, even as broadcast ratings erode.

So, as “#EndTimes” as it may seem that the fall’s freshman hit is averaging a 0.9 in the demo, have no fear — there is no future where you switch on the Magnavox, turn the knob to Channel 7 and find nothing but static.