A year ago, NBC cruised to its second consecutive season victory in the 18-49 demo on the strength of the Super Bowl, the Winter Olympics and Thursday Night Football. Even though the network didn’t have any of those shows to bolster its lineup this season, the end result was the same: NBC won the 18-49 demo crown for the third straight year, and for the fifth time in the past six years.
Yet despite its hat trick in the demo most coveted by advertisers, NBC still has major cause for concern: its demo rating fell 27% year-over-year, from a 2.2 last year to a 1.6 this season. That was just enough to hold off CBS and Fox, which tied for second with a 1.5. (Both networks’ demo ratings were flat compared to last season.)
ABC, which had tied CBS and NBC for second place last year, fell back down to fourth with a 1.2 rating (a 20% drop), meaning that it has now been in fourth place for six of the past eight seasons. The CW slipped to a 0.4 demo rating, a 33% drop from last season’s 0.6.
The TV season ends on Wednesday, but NBC felt confident enough to declare victory a day early.
“Since taking on this role, our mantra has been stability without complacency,” said NBC co-chairman George Cheeks and Paul Telegdy in a statement. “Winning the season for the fifth time in six years gives us the strong foundation we need to take some big swings in the future. It’s a mark of the underlying strength of our schedule that in a year with no Super Bowl, Olympics or Thursday Night Football, we remained the network to beat, making us bullish about the season ahead.”
CBS, which couldn’t eke out the demo win despite airing the Super Bowl this season, was the No. 1 network in total viewers once again (8.9 million, down 1% from last year) for the 11th straight season. NBC was No. 2 with 7.2 million (a 19% drop), followed by ABC (5.6 million, down 7%), Fox (5.4 million, a 11% increase) and The CW (1.3 million, down 24%).
As Adweek noted last month, NBC’s fortified unscripted slate in midseason—including the addition of America’s Got Talent: The Champions—fixed the traditional ratings lull between Voice cycles and helped NBC secure the demo crown for the third year.
But Fox is the odds-on favorite to come out on top next season, as the network will have Super Bowl LIV, WWE’s SmackDown Live (airing each Friday) and two cycles of The Masked Singer (Season 3 will debut after the Super Bowl), last year’s biggest freshman series.
Sunday Night Football was back on top as the No. 1 broadcast series in the demo this season with a 6.1 rating (vs 6.2 last year). Thursday Night Football, which moved to Fox full-time after splitting games between CBS and NBC, was No. 2 with a 4.4. Fourth-place This Is Us was the top-rated entertainment series in the demo with a 3.8, while No. 5 The Masked Singer was the most-watched freshman series in the demo, with a 3.8. At No. 6, The Big Bang Theory was the top comedy, also with a 3.8.
Among total viewers, Sunday Night Football was also on top, averaging 19.3 million viewers. That was followed by last year’s No. 1 show among total viewers, The Big Bang Theory, which slipped to second with 17.9 million. NCIS was the most-watched drama with 15.8 million, and Big Bang prequel Young Sheldon—which inherits the Thursday 8 p.m. time slot from Big Bang next season—was the No. 4 most-watched show with 14.7 million.
(All ratings reflect Nielsen’s “most current” ratings, which is live-plus-7 for the entire season except for the last two weeks, which are live-plus-same-day.)
But a look back at the season rankings over the past decade shows just how far linear ratings have plummeted. Just two seasons ago, the lowest-rated of the big four broadcasters, ABC, averaged a 1.6 rating, which was enough to give NBC the win this time around.
And seven years ago, the No. 1 network in the demo, Fox, averaged a 3.2 rating, double what NBC pulled this year.
2018-19 September-to-May Season Averages
(average rating and audience through May 19)
NBC 1.6, 2.1 million
CBS 1.5, 2 million
Fox 1.5, 1.9 million
ABC 1.2, 1.6 million
The CW 0.4, 560,000
CBS 8.9 million
NBC 7.2 million
ABC 5.6 million
Fox 5.4 million
The CW 1.3 million
The big four broadcast networks’ 18-49 season rankings over the past decade