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Bringing the ratings picture into focus

Empire's season two debut brought in 16.2 million viewers
Empire’s season two debut brought in an unassailable 16.2 million viewers

Now that we are deep into September, new dramas, and new seasons of established series, are being launched on a pretty regular basis. It is, however, becoming increasingly difficult to identify winners and losers on the basis of their opening ratings.

As we’ve noted previously in this column, so many people are now time-shifting dramas, or watching them on non-traditional platforms, that it can take three or four weeks for the dust to settle and consistent viewing patterns to establish themselves.

The fragmentation of viewing audiences partially explains why so many dramas in the past week or two have opened with comparatively low ratings. In the UK, new series of Downton Abbey and Doctor Who both underperformed on opening night, while in the US the majority of new and returning shows delivered unspectacular ratings.

Fox's pathology drama Rosewood
Fox’s pathology drama Rosewood

 

Gotham, NCIS: LA, Castle, Minority Report and Scream Queens were all at the low-to-moderate end of expectations (although host network Fox is pretty confident that Gotham will recover once time-shifted viewing is factored in).

There are exceptions, of course. Some shows are so hot that people just aren’t willing to delay their viewing enjoyment. The stand-out example of this is Fox’s Empire, which attracted 16.2 million viewers and a 6.7 rating among adults 18-49 for its season two premiere. That figure is the show’s second-best rating ever and confirms Empire’s status as the network show to beat. To put it in context, the only entertainment series on US TV to have drawn a higher 18-49 rating for an episode this year is AMC’s The Walking Dead, which returns to the airwaves on October 11.

US network TNT is cancelling Proof
US network TNT is cancelling Proof

Empire is such a strong performer that it was used by Fox as the lead in for a new pathology-based drama called Rosewood, starring Morris Chestnut. Rosewood did pretty well as a result but the early critical reviews of the show suggest that it will take more than a scheduling favour from Empire to sustain it. Remember, this is the age of ultimate choice where nothing will make an audience watch a show if they aren’t convinced.

From Fox’s perspective, the beauty of Empire is the way its audience grew so strongly in the first season. Having started with just under 10 million viewers for episode one, it rose to 13-14 million by the middle of the first season. By the end, it had leapt to 17.62 million.

The lesson is that you don’t have to hit extraordinary heights with the first episode. But you do need two things: firstly, a big enough launch platform to generate momentum and, secondly, a strong enough story to gather new fans as you progress.

Blindspot could struggle to retain its early audience
Blindspot could struggle to retain its early audience

So which of this year’s new shows stand a chance of replicating Empire’s success? NBC’s Blindspot has had an encouraging start. After a good early buzz over summer, it launched with 10.6 million viewers and a 3.1 rating among 18-49s. Given everything we’ve previously said about alternative viewing patterns, that’s a pretty good performance. If there is a challenge for Blindspot it will be to sustain the strength of its opening premise: a naked woman is found in a bag in Times Square, her memory gone but her body tattooed with clues to future crimes. This is exactly the kind of show that will either deliver on its promise or lose steam after three or four episodes if viewers tire of the central premise.

CBS’s Limitless also rated quite well (9.8 million viewers at 10pm, a 1.8 rating). Based on the movie of the same name, it was helped by the fact that it featured Bradley Cooper, the star of the film. An IMDb rating of 8.5 suggests that the show’s early adopters quite like the show, so it will be interesting to see how it fares once Cooper is no longer involved in the story. For those not familiar with Limitless, it centres on a drug that enables users to unlock 100% of their brain functionality. In the CBS TV series, this is employed as the basis of an FBI procedural storytelling format.

Limitless benefited from Hollywood star Bradley Cooper's presence
Limitless benefited from Hollywood star Bradley Cooper’s presence

The dynamics around new dramas are usually volatile, because it’s not always clear what factors will motivate viewers to tune in. But things are generally more predictable for established franchises such as Downton Abbey, which returned to ITV in the UK on Sunday September 20 at 21.00.

After the loyalty demonstrated by the audience over the past five years, the show would probably have expected to see pretty strong ratings as Downton-starved fans rushed to enjoy what will be the last season ever. Instead, season six of Downton Abbey delivered its lowest overnight audience ever: 7.6 million. This is well down on last year’s opening episode, which brought in 8.4 million. The last time Downton dropped this low was for its first ever episode in 2010 (7.7 million).

Low, of course, is a slightly unfair word to use. Downton still beat all its rivals and also massively out-performed ITV’s slot average (35.5% share against 21.3%). Still, it does raise the question where did the Downton fans go? There are a few possibilities.

Downton Abbey delivered its lowest overnight audience ever
Downton Abbey delivered its lowest overnight audience ever

Firstly, there is the time-shifting point. This opening episode was an extended 90-minute special, so audiences may have decided to bank the show rather than stay up late on Sunday night. Secondly, the promotional build-up to the series may have missed its mark – there was a lot of early PR buzz but my household still managed to miss it, despite being fans. So maybe ITV failed to get its new-series signposting right. Thirdly, the audience may have been put off by the fact that this has already been set up as the final season. While that may seem like a way of generating excitement, it can also have an enervating effect as audiences wonder whether it’s worth tuning in. And finally, writer Julian Fellowes may have judged the show’s sell-by date just right. Perhaps the audience is getting a little weary of Downton’s cosseted worldview and its lack of zombies.

OWN: Oprah Winfrey Network’s The Have and the Have Nots
OWN: Oprah Winfrey Network’s The Have and the Have Nots

As outlined at the start of this piece, September is when most shows start. But a few are also coming to a close after a summer run. One show that emerged from this period in good shape is OWN: Oprah Winfrey Network’s The Have and the Have Nots. The show, which follows the dynamic between the rich and powerful Cryer family and the hired help who work in their Savannah mansion, is created, written, directed and executive produced by Tyler Perry. The season three finale attracted 3.7 million viewers, making it the most watched telecast in the network’s history. It was then followed by another Tyler Perry show, If Loving You is Wrong, which picked up a healthy 2.9 million viewers. Both shows were also among the top cable performers among women.

Elsewhere, US cable network TNT has announced that it is cancelling Proof, in which a female surgeon is challenged to explore whether there could be an afterlife. Over the course of the show, she transforms from being a sceptic to a reluctant believer.

The first season of the show rated reasonably well but its audience skewed towards older demographics. This was probably the killer blow, given that TNT/TBS’s recently appointed president Kevin Reilly has talked about “sharpening the point of view and being even more adventurous in our programming choices.” Speaking at the channel’s Upfronts in May, he said: “As we expand our portfolio, viewers should expect some very daring shows, some of which will not appeal to all of our current viewers but will be a lightning rod to attract new viewers.”

Finally, Doctor Who’s ratings make for interesting reading. In the UK, the show’s new season opened with just 4.6 million viewers on BBC1, down from 6.8 million for episode one last year. But in the US, the same episode did extremely well for BBC America, delivering double-digit growth from season eight across all key demos in live-plus-same-day ratings. The premiere episode ranks as Doctor Who’s biggest season premiere ever in the adult 18-49 demo, which nearly doubled the season eight average. The debut also saw increased social engagement and reigned as the most social drama of the week leading up to the premiere.

Doctor Who's season debut rated well in the US
Doctor Who’s season debut rated well in the US

 

The US airing delivered two million total viewers, 1.1 million of which were adults 18-49. “Doctor Who is unlike anything else on television, a storied franchise that is as fresh and contemporary as ever, with brilliant writing and superb performances,” said Sarah Barnett, president of BBC America. “New and returning Doctor Who fans tuned into the live premiere in record numbers.”

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