With Labor Day now in our rearview mirror and the new TV season about to knock on our door, it’s time once again to turn from the big screen to the small. Just as we did last year, we’ll spend each Wednesday through the end of December taking a look at the television industry, one network or batch of networks at a time. As we did last year, so will we start this year with CBS, the broadcast network with the most viewers, though certainly not the youngest.
Considering that it has won the crown for most viewers for nine straight seasons, and 14 of the last 15, it’s hard to imagine that CBS was ever a punchline, but it was. A big one. It’s been a while since that’s been the case, although the aging core of its audience does occasionally offer fodder for laughs. That’s why NBC has won the prime demo war three years running because it draws more viewers between the ages of 18 and 49. Its programming has far more appeal to the younger crowd, whereas the Tiffany Network’s main audience is over the age of 50, and that ain’t really changing. And, since we’re not talking about the Peacock Network until next week, let’s instead focus on that CBS programming, and how it’s weathering the ongoing hemorrhaging of its viewership, while also trying to establish a firm beachhead in the streaming world.
When I say “hemorrhaging,” by the way, I’m not kidding. Even the top network in the land was unable to hold onto its viewership, as it was down to an average of 9.6 million per show, a drop of 12 percent from the year before. That’s the first time in many a year that it’s been below 10 million, and that is not the direction you want to be traveling these days. Ever, really, but especially now when there are so many other options out there besides the broadcast nets. The fact that there are expected to be four million subscribers to the CBS All-Access streaming service by the end of the year — with a goal of eight million by 2020 — is a step in the right direction, but the big job here is to stem the flow of people turning away from the network.
On the bright side, CBS has both the most watched scripted show on broadcast television, in The Big Bang Theory, and the most watched drama, NCIS, each of which is coming back for at least a couple more years, thanks to some recent extension deals. In that area, CBS might not have the retention it wants, but of the top 10 most watched dramas, eight of them are on CBS, and there’s nothing bad about that. Blue Bloods, NCIS: New Orleans, NCIS: Los Angeles, Hawaii Five-0, Madam Secretary and Criminal Minds, all continue to be solid performers, while rookie show Bull was the sixth-most watched show on TV, and ranked 21st in the prime demo. Toss in unscripted programming like the perennial winner Survivor, as well as Big Brother, and the behemoth that is Thursday Night Football, and it’s no wonder the network is still number one.
Look at that list of shows though, and the other thing that makes sense is the aging viewership. None of those programs is exactly fodder for the younger crowd (except Big Bang Theory, which is the number one scripted show in even the 18-49 demo, and is clearly catnip for viewers of all ages), and it’s not clear that any of the new half dozen shows premiering this fall are, either. Mark Feuerstein returns to TV with the sitcom 9JKL, about a newly divorced actor who moves back into the apartment next door to his parents on one side, and his brother’s family on the other. John Larroquette and Bobby Moynihan play different versions of the same character at different points in his life in another sitcom, Me, Myself & I, and later this fall comes the questionable Big Bang Theory spinoff, Young Sheldon. The dramas on the list are the David Boreanaz-led action drama, SEAL Team, a S.W.A.T. remake fronted by Shemar Moore, and Wisdom of the Crowd, which stars Jeremy Piven as a tech icon uses crowdsourcing to assist in finding his daughter’s killer and winds up creating a tool to help in criminal investigations.
Now, admittedly, that last one sounds pretty cool, especially if it doesn’t devolve into the standard murder-of-the-week procedural. If it does, it’ll fit right in with the rest of the network’s fare, but that’s not exactly the kind of thing that draws the young’uns. If it actually turns into something more dynamic and less predictable, something that could actually be called trendy, that might go some distance to turning the tide of this whole “horribly aging viewer” thing. On the other hand, it’s entirely possible that CBS doesn’t care about that in the slightest. Its revenues and operating income both hit all-time highs in 2016, though that has a great deal to do with factors above and beyond the prime time.
It’s important to point out that a big part of the reason why the corporation is in such good financial health is its deal to broadcast the NFL, the resurgence of Stephen Colbert in late night, and its ownership of the pay cable network Showtime (which we’ll cover on its own in a few weeks), but that doesn’t mean the network is. Those fleeing viewers are a real issue, and it’s not like every broadcast network’s numbers went down in the past year. They didn’t. Both NBC and Fox actually saw their numbers tick up slightly, which is certainly a good thing in the networks’ communal war against fractionalization, even if it doesn’t immediately help CBS. What it does do, though, is give hope to everyone that, perhaps, this battle to hold onto viewers is not as one-sided as we might have thought.
The argument could be made, of course, that all viewers will eventually reach that prime age CBS so covets, and so fruitlessly trying to appeal to younger ones with the stalwart fare that has worked for it so well for so long is a waste of time. The downside of that, obviously, is that the younger viewers the network is not bothering to draw to its programming are getting more and more used to consuming content in all number of forms. There is a whole generation of consumers now who have never known a world without the internet, something unfathomable to the core CBS viewership, as well as anyone in their mid-30s or older. That’s why the All-Access push is so important to both the network and the corporation. Subscriptions to the service run either $5.99 per month (for limited commercials) or $9.99 (commercial free), which means that, assuming that four million subscriber goal is met by the end of the year, that’s essentially $300-450 million coming into the coffers, and that’s nothing at which to sneeze.
Throwing around numbers like that, it’s no wonder the network is spending so much money on streaming-only programming like The Good Fight and the upcoming Star Trek Discovery, which premieres later this month after a series of delays and showrunner changes. The investment in online content is clearly key to its continued success, something that Moonves understands. CBS might have gotten something of a late start on this — it’s not like the writing wasn’t on the wall five years ago — but it’s clearly working hard to catch up and establish its beachhead in the arena.
All five broadcast networks are facing troubles never before seen in this industry. We’ll get to each of them through the rest of this month and the beginning of the next before we turn to cable and the streaming services, but CBS is not resting on its laurels, hoping that it can ride out the issue. It’s definitely being proactive, even if it does continue to have that alarming blind spot with younger viewers. It’ll be an interesting development over the coming years, watching as the most-watched network keeps trying to attract online viewers, even as they don’t seem to spend much time drawing the exact viewers who tend to watch more of their content online. It’s counterintuitive, to say the least.