As we head into the coming Fall season, there are some trends and stats that will be useful to know as you track the status of your favorite shows. This coming week alone, eleven sci fi & fantasy shows will be having their season premieres and, for almost all of those, their ratings numbers will be at their highest with their debuts. The typical trend is that a show debuts at its highest level for the season and then the numbers head down from there. The downward movement is not necessarily a bad thing as we see this trend across almost all shows on television, not just the sci fi / fantasy entries. If the show sees a steep decline, though, that could be bad. But the drop from its premiere is to be expected. Many shows see a boost to their ratings with their season finales as well, but rarely do those number match their season premiere levels. The most notable exceptions to that are ratings juggernauts like The Walking Dead and Game of Thrones which generally end their seasons with a bang (or a frustratingly heart-wrenching cliffhanger, but don't get me started . . .).
Looking at some of the shows from last season will give a good illustration of how the ratings trends typically work, especially with the broadcast networks. ABC's Once Upon A Time provides a good example of the typical trend, even if its numbers were down this past season (which was true of almost all shows due to the ratings-pocalypse). The chart below shows the overnight ratings for each new episode tracked with the light blue shading and the delayed viewing with the dark red shading and the line indicates its first episode back from its winter hiatus. You will see that the show started off at its highest level (a 1.8 rating) and then trended down. It held steady when it returned from hiatus, which is not always the case as sometimes the hiatus hurts a show, especially when it is three months long like with Once Upon A Time. Its numbers continued to fall from there, which is common in Spring and was a bit worse overall for all shows during the 2015-16 season as the ratings-pocalypse worsened. An important additional trend to glean from this is the fact that the delayed viewing follows a very similar pattern to the overnights, just with higher numbers. You might think that those stats would have a steadier trend, but they tend to peak and fall in line with the lower numbers. Not always, but enough to see a very similar trend between the two measurements.
The trends for Agents of SHIELD are interesting because that show saw a very notable decline, especially during the latter half of the season. Its delayed viewing numbers follow a similar line and you can see that the mid-season hiatus (of over three months just like Once Upon A Time) worked against it. Had it not been a third season show that was racing through the syndication stretch (more on that at this link), it would have almost certainly been cancelled.
The CW's The Flash was actually one of the most steady performing shows last season without much fluctuation from where it started to where it ended. And that one even had a second hiatus in Spring (something that The CW annoyingly does with all its shows) which didn't hurt it for more than an episode or so.
CBS series Limitless is interesting because its trend looks very similar to Once Upon A Time above, but it ended up getting cancelled. And that is despite the fact that it was in a much more difficult timeslot (Tuesdays 10 PM EST) and had better delayed viewing gains. It is true that Once Upon A Time had already passed the syndication threshold and is guaranteed to make back its money in its encore run, but Limitless was definitely treated poorly by its network.
Other cancelled broadcast network shows like Minority Report (FOX), Second Chance (FOX), and You, Me, and the Apocalypse (NBC) did not get the ax because of their ratings drop-offs, but because they started so low. The trend for Minority Report below is pretty indicative as it started low last Fall with only a 1.1 rating based on the overnights and then slipped even further from there. And as you can see, the delayed viewing did not pick up much slack for the show.
The shows that air on the cable networks see a similar trend, though not necessarily as much of a decline. That's especially true of the "ratings noise" entries that have numbers in the 0.4 range and below. You can see the trend for Syfy's The Magicians that started of with a 0.40 score based on the overnights then leveled off mostly in the 0.25 range. It spiked a little bit later in the season, but when you are in those ranges the difference between a 0.25 score and a 0.32 is not really worth noting. As the Live+7 results for cable shows was spotty at best last season (and probably this one as well), I am only showing the overnights in the chart below.
American Horror Story had a slightly different trend as it started with very good numbers at a 3.0 rating which beat out much of the programming on the broadcast nets for the week it debuted. But it had dropped pretty far by the time its season had ended. That show just had its sixth season debut this past Wednesday, again with very good numbers (a 2.8 rating). It will be interesting to see if it experiences a similar drop-off or if it will be able to hold onto viewers better in its sixth year.
As we head into the current season, I will provide some numbers below that can help gauge how the returning shows are performing. This gives last year's season average as well as the high and low scores. If any of these shows are performing above or at least even with those numbers, then that is definitely a good sign. Performing below does not necessarily mean they are in trouble, though. We have to first determine if the ratings-pocalypse is continuing to drive down the viewing numbers or if that is finally starting to level off. I will be doing that in the upcoming Scorecard posts over at Cancelled Sci Fi, so be sure to keep an eye out for those (the first is scheduled for the beginning of October). In the meantime, the numbers below should provide some guidance. The Benchmark is the network average for non-sports, non-special, non-repeat programming for the broadcast nets or the minimum level at which shows were typically renewed on the network last season for the cable channels.