It's a new TV season, but the first week's ratings indicate that the networks will be facing what has become the same old problem with younger viewers.
During premiere week for the 2016-17 season, overall prime-time TV usage was off around 7% among the 18-to-34 age group compared with a year ago, based on Nielsen data. The number has been on a downward trend over the last few years, reflecting the emergence of online video streaming and video on demand.
"They are watching," Jeff Bader, president of program planning, strategy and research for NBC, said of the increasingly elusive younger demographic. "They are just watching in different places. That audience watches where they want, when they want."
CBS, which appeals to a broad audience that goes beyond 18-to-34-year-olds, won premiere week with 11.2 million viewers, followed by NBC (8.7 million),
NBC ranked first among viewers ages 18 to 49, the group that advertisers seek the most, with an average of 2.51 million viewers, but was off 6% compared with last year's premiere week. CBS was up slightly to 2.46 million. ABC was off 21% to 1.34 million, while Fox was down 23% to 1.23 million.
None of the broadcast networks is in denial about the changing habits of viewers. They are now issuing ratings news releases each day that show the lift that their programs get when three days of DVR and video on demand playback are added in (advertisers pay only for the ads that viewers see during playback over the three to seven days after a show airs live). The networks are also selling ad time on their own streaming platforms.
According to an analysis from Billie Gold, vice president and director of program research for the media buying firm Amplifi, the 18-to-49 demographic rating for original entertainment series on Fox gained 9.8% during premiere week when three days of delayed viewing was added. ABC saw an 8.1% gain, while CBS saw a 7.1% lift. NBC saw only 3.8% because most of the viewing for its biggest hit, the reality singing competition "The Voice," is done live when the program airs.
Delayed viewing can boost even the biggest hit shows that viewers will still show up to watch live. The season premiere of Fox's "Empire" grew 39% to 15.1 million viewers when three days of delayed viewing data from Nielsen was added in.
But the broadcast networks also showed that their promotional efforts, along with effective scheduling, can still get viewers to into the tent to watch new show premieres in the traditional way. Three new series on CBS -- "Bull," "Kevin Can Wait" and "MacGyver" — topped 10 million viewers on a "live plus same day" basis. ABC's new Kiefer Sutherland drama "Designated Survivor" and NBC's "This Is Us," which was picked up Tuesday for a full season of 18 episodes, also topped the 10 million mark.
"There is still no better aggregator of an audience than traditional television," NBC's Bader said. "If you want to reach a sizable audience at the same time, this is still the way to do it."