Ratings Aren’t As Important to TV Networks These Days

October 2, 2018

Over the next few weeks, a new crop of TV shows will premiere across the major networks. But not all of these shows will stay on the air for a full season. That’s because broadcasters have long used the fall as a testing ground for new programming. If a show premieres to high ratings and audience acclaim, network executives will likely order more episodes of it. If few people decide to tune in, however, a new show might last one episode before it’s pulled off the air.

Then again, that’s how things traditionally happened in the TV industry before the Internet became an integral part of many people’s lives. Now insiders say that ratings don’t hold the same power over a show’s fate like they once did. For instance, last year marked the first time in recent history that networks cancelled fewer than half of their first-year shows. At one point in time, networks cancelled two out of every three freshman shows largely because they failed to attract more than 5 million viewers. What’s more, 13 different series are entering at least their 10th season this fall. In the past, such longevity would be unthinkable for all but the highest rated shows. That’s certainly not the case for Grey’s Anatomy, though, which will soon enter its 15th season despite its viewership dropping 70 percent from the show’s height.

Part of this decline stems from an overall drop in broadcast television viewership brought about by the growing popularity of Netflix and Hulu. Still, shows like Grey’s Anatomy have other things to offer their networks besides nightly audiences. Along with developing lucrative contracts to distribute shows overseas, networks can also earn a lot of money by striking syndication deals with streaming services. As a result, executives are more willing to take their chances on an underperforming but established show rather than start from scratch with an entirely new series. While this works for the industry in the short term, some insiders fear that network shows could grow increasingly stale and push audiences towards newer, potentially more exciting platforms. “We’re in a time when it’s much easier to stay on the air but much harder to get on the air,” said Danny Strong, co-creator of the show Empire. “That’s either very good or very bad for television, depending on who you are.”


  1. Why are TV networks placing less importance on ratings these days?
  2. As TV networks allow shows to stay on the air longer, what potential affects could this policy have on the industry as whole?

Source: Steven Zeitchik, “When Ratings Don’t Define Success, More TV Series Are Staying on the Air Longer,” The Washington Post, September 28, 2018.