Thanks to football, Sunday nights in the fall can be very misleading. NBC will walk away with the night between September and December with an astounding 6.5 rating each Sunday in prime time during the NFL season. For 18 weeks, this is the highest-rated night on any network. Further, the Sunday prime time ratings for CBS and FOX vary significantly from week to week, depending on which network carries the 4:15 pm ET national NFL game. On the surface, ABC will initially look like it is struggling on Sundays, running in fourth place in the fall. But keep in mind that when the NFL season ends, the ratings for the other three networks will drop immediately, while ABC will be steady all winter and spring. By February, ABC will probably find itself in first place on the night with a promising string of dramas that has plenty of upside.
The best news of the week for NBC is that we see no evidence of the NFL’s popularity waning. The #1 program on television, Sunday Night Football, should have a fairly similar audience to last year, providing NBC with a 6.5 rating from 7:30-11:00 each Sunday in the fourth quarter of the year. The nightly rating is a blend of Football Night in America (which is only rated from 7:30-8:00
since NBC avoids placing network commercials in the 7:00 half hour opposite the end of the late afternoon game), a short pregame show, and the game itself, which should average around a 7.7 rating from around 8:30 on. Until the calendar turns to 2013, NBC can count a massive victory each Sunday, which in turn props up its weekly average. (Specifically, NBC’s weekly average in the fall will be a 2.6 rating with that 6.5 on Sunday. The weekly average collapses all the way to a 1.8 rating when Sunday turns into a NFL-less 2.0 rating.) It is, however, worth noting that NBC pays a giant license fee to the NFL for these games, meaning that football brings the network plenty of revenue but little direct profit.
FOX returns its block of animated comedies from 8-10 pm, and that second-place 3.4 rating for the entire night looks pretty impressive in the chart above. It’s also another case of misleading football-driven numbers. Half of the time in the fall (when FOX has the NFL afternoon doubleheader), FOX prime will average around a 4.6 rating from 7-10 pm. In those weeks when the 4:15 game airs on FOX, the network should average a whopping 9.1 rating in the 7:00 half hour as the NFC game ends, followed by a 6.1 at 7:30 for a combination of very long games and The OT highlight show. That massive lead-in will lift each of the comedies (The Simpsons 3.5, Bob’s Burgers 2.7, Family Guy 3.5 and American Dad 2.5). But the other weeks (when CBS airs the late game), FOX will average around a 2.3 rating from 7-10 pm, a much better indication of what the network will do on Sunday the rest of the season. During the weeks without the late afternoon football game, FOX’s program ratings will look like this: Repeat comedies at 7:00 1.3, Cleveland Show 1.7, The Simpsons 2.8, Bob’s Burgers 2.4, Family Guy 3.0 and American Dad 2.3.
CBS will be in third place in the fall, averaging a 2.8 rating on a mostly unchanged Sunday. But even that rating is football-reliant. When CBS has the 4:15 pm game, its Sunday prime time average will be a 3.3 rating (an 8.0 rating from 7:00-7:30 as the somewhat lower-rated AFC game ends, a 3.3 for 60 Minutes as it starts at 7:30, 2.9 for Amazing Race at 8:30, 1.9 for The Good Wife at 9:30 and 2.2 for The Mentalist at 10:30). The other half of the weeks in the fall, CBS will average a 2.2 from 7-11 pm, revealing the true underlying weakness of the Sunday schedule: 1.9 for 60 Minutes at 7:00, 2.7 for Amazing Race at 8:00, 1.9 for The Good Wife at 9:00 and 2.3 for The Mentalist. The ratings scenarios are based on the programs eroding about a tenth of a rating point from last fall’s nearly identical schedule. Note that Good Wife gets no bump from football, and Mentalist will actually be helped when football does not push its start time to 10:30 or later.
ABC, the only network with significant schedule changes on Sunday, might be on the verge of some real progress. America’s Funniest Home Videos continues like a zombie at 7 pm — we are projecting a 1.4 rating this fall, down a tenth from last fall. But the night really begins at 8 pm with Once Upon a Time. The show is poised to build on a strong first season and climb to a 3.9 rating this fall (up three tenths from last fall’s original episodes). Once Upon a Time settled into the low-3s in the spring, but it will benefit mightily from the long uninterrupted run of original episodes in the fall, as well as having had perhaps TV’s best season finale this month. Revenge moves into the Desperate Housewives slot, a young edgier soap replacing the tired, worn-out campier one. It seems like the perfect time and place to move Revenge: we project a 3.0 rating (one tenth higher than Desperate fall originals) with significant upside. At 10 pm, 666 Park Avenue should average a 2.4 rating in originals, a significant four-tenths of a rating improvement over Pan Am fall originals. From what we’ve seen, 666 Park Avenue looks like an extremely classy horror genre piece, with a cast of ABC favorites like Terry O’Quinn, Vanessa Williams, Rachael Taylor and Dave Annable. The entire night adds up to a 2.7 rating from 7-11 pm. In the fall, that works out to fourth place against the NFL-inflated competition. But in January and beyond it will be first place on the night as FOX fall to around a 2.3, CBS goes to around a 2.2 and NBC plummets to a 2.0 rating or below.
Looking at the weekly ratings as a whole, the race in the fall appears to be very close. CBS averages a 2.7 for the Monday-Sunday schedule, followed closely by FOX and NBC with a 2.6, and ABC trails with a 2.4 rating. But NBC’s rating in the chart below is the most tenuous: the 2.6 weekly average will turn into around a 1.8 in January when football ends. Without the Super Bowl to provide a lift, NBC’s season average will be down to a 2.4 by February and by April it will be a 2.2, well below ABC. In contrast, CBS has the Super Bowl this season, and that one night will lift CBS to a 2.9 or 3.0 rating. FOX will get some lift from American Idol after January, but nothing like it used to receive. By the end of the season, FOX could be a 2.7 rating. Early season-long projection for 2012-13: CBS 3.0, FOX 2.7, ABC 2.4, NBC 2.2.
Please keep in mind that these estimates for the new shows are based on the trailers produced for the advertiser upfront presentations. As the actual pilots become available and the networks start their marketing campaigns for the new shows, we reserve the right to adjust our projections here and there.