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What's Up with All the Low TV Ratings?

What's Up with All the Low TV Ratings?

It's been a tough spring for television, with shows hitting their season-low ratings left and right. The latest casualty is "Heroes," which plunged to third place in its time slot this week with its worst ratings ever. "24" wasn't far off its own season low. And I've already told you about the ratings woes of NBC, whose Thursday lineup recently hit an all-time low. It's May Sweeps, also known as television's biggest month; this isn't supposed to be happening!

I still have a lot to learn about TV ratings, but I have a few guesses about why so many shows appear to be tanking right now. Here are my best bets:

  • It's hard to come back from a hiatus. Many of the shows that have recorded recent lows also took an extended break at some point during the season. "Heroes" hit a low with its first episode back from hiatus two weeks ago. "Ugly Betty" also hit a series low after its break this spring. The bad news is that repeats are unavoidable, as long as TV networks continue following the traditional path of producing 22 or 23 episodes to air over the course of a nine-month TV season. Maybe airing a whole season uninterrupted, like ABC will be doing with the next three seasons of "Lost," will change things. (It didn't help "24," but hey, that show has its own problems.)
  • Two more reasons, so

  • People watch TV differently these days. The companies that track TV ratings are just starting to understand the impact of DVRs and online TV on the way people watch. Many ratings reports account for people who watch a show they've recorded on the same day it airs — but not, say, if they record "Desperate Housewives" on Sunday and watch it on Tuesday. When Nielsen released a report on time-shifted shows, "Lost," "Friday Night Lights" and "The Office" were among those that gained the most — and all three have struggled in the ratings. The problem? Advertisers don't care about time-shifters, who often fast-forward through ads. And even if they were included, it still wouldn't account for people who watch episodes online or buy shows from iTunes.
  • Networks have lost our trust. This year has been a particularly vicious one for TV viewers, as many shows have been yanked with little warning and no closure. After "Six Degrees," "Day Break," "Kidnapped," "Vanished," "Studio 60" and so many others, why should we bother giving "The Black Donnellys" or "Drive" a shot? There are a few positive examples of shows that got full seasons ("Friday Night Lights") and even got renewed ("30 Rock") despite low ratings, but they're the exception.

Then again, it could also be that lame Daylight Savings Time excuse "American Idol" used earlier this spring, but ... well, I doubt it. Tell me: What do you think is behind the ratings woes?

Join The Conversation
asco00 asco00 10 years
I think it's DVR's, I watch very little live tv these days. There is no time, most of these shows come on when I am doing the mom thing. Homework, dinner, baths, etc etc.
calibabi calibabi 10 years
you're dead on with the point that "networks have lost our trust." i loved was cancelled. i loved studio 60...gone. i loved the black donnelly's...cancelled. does anyone remember the show reunion?? i watched that one, and it was cancelled before i ever found out who killed that girl. the world will never know...
ticklezmepink ticklezmepink 10 years
NOT TRUE!! ONE TREE HILL DID WELL AFTER A 10 WEEK HIATUS!! more than the search for the next PCD , which air the week before... maybe it's a flop because they don't have the loyal fans!!!
Phil Phil 10 years
PLain and simple - the Nielsen Television Ratings system is too flawed in this day and age. You mentioned the nail in the coffin for the system (which I've written a 15 page analysis on for a class, but that's irrelevant) is that the people that were watching TV are no longer watching TV on TV. They're still watching TV, but now it's TV on DVR or TiVO (praise DVR!), TV on iTunes, TV on, TV on torrent downloads, and TV on DVD. It's just more convenient - you can watch when you want and fast forward through commercials or watch the shows through commercial free iTunes or torrent (for the pirates) downloads. Even's video player offers the shows with only three 30 second commercial breaks. How long before advertisements are seen with your iTunes episode downloads, and will the frequency of annoying sticky ads be seen? All of a sudden, the shows that everyone is still talking about (from my experience at least) are mysteriously losing viewers in the double digit percentile when compared to last year? Pheh! Terrible for the production budgets of our favourite shows.
LaLa0428 LaLa0428 10 years
DH and Lost are just plain boring this season! I quit watching both of those after the first couple of episodes this season. Style Before Comfort!
NadiaPotter NadiaPotter 10 years
I still want to see that x files show "threshold" I think it was called. My mom doesn't really see that much of TV, but I show her that show and she like it. And the they move it to another day... and we still watch, and then it's gone. That's when I lose hope in the networks. I think they have to give more chance to the shows, My brother it's a fan of heroes, but he didn't watch the first 7 episodes when they were aired.
pinupsweetheart pinupsweetheart 10 years
I agree. It is hard to give up your favorite show for a couple months. Then you forget when it comes back on. :( p.s But I never miss my Heros <3
Lavinie Lavinie 10 years
I agree with everything said Buzz... i hate waiting for a show to return from hiatus, it's always difficult to get back on track sometimes and you just lose some interest and you don't end up watching the show as religiously as you might have at the beginning. i'm also a big fan of dvr and online watching and they may need to start accounting for these things, i would hate to see some shows being pulled off because they think people aren't watching when in fact they are.
UrbanBohemian UrbanBohemian 10 years
Because the TV sucks! Don't you know by now?
ash_marisa ash_marisa 10 years
Its all about DVR...24 and heroes at the same time, many ppl watch both shows
xrockette19x xrockette19x 10 years
I almost always have to watch heroes online, and I like it better that way actually, because there are less commercials. They really should look at how many times the episodes are watched online, I think that would reveal a lot.
steen steen 10 years
It seems, more than ever, the networks are reaching for straws, grabbing anything they can to plug into prime time spots. I hate Fox and their tendency to cancel shows after only a few episodes --- why bother picking up the show then? I mean, whatever made it bomb HAD to be apparent from the get-go, if it wasn't good enough to last three episodes. They've put out a lot of crap TV and this is their punishment. And maybe it's just me but it seems like there are WAY more commercial breaks than there used to be. I don't know if it's because they lose money thanks to DVR and TiVO --- one of the networks introduced five-minute CGI cartoons featuring a cab driver in NYC, just to get people to not fast forward through the commercials.
ccsugar ccsugar 10 years
I was bummed when they cancelled Kidnapped :( I liked that show. But at least I still have The Office :) The only show I watch on network tv...
Linda-McP Linda-McP 10 years
I agree with your analysis, Buzz. It is especially hard to develop trust in a network that yanks shows without giving them a chance to reach their stride and to develop sustained interest in plot lines when shows are on several weeks' hiatus.
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