Fox needed help in the TV ratings this fall, and it got some from a nice kid named Bruce Wayne.
"Gotham" is a live-action prequel that tells the story of how young crime victim Bruce grew up to become the comic superhero Batman. It also illustrates how many broadcast shows are piling up better-than-expected ratings this fall, thanks to heavy DVR usage.
"Gotham" pulled in a decent 8.2 million total viewers for its premiere last month, according to Nielsen. But once viewers who watched over the next three days were added, "Gotham's" total sailed past 12 million, giving it one of the biggest DVR lifts of any show on TV.
"That's a franchise that has a multigenerational fan base," Dan Harrison, executive vice president of scheduling at Fox, said of Batman. "This is one that we hope will start the turnaround at Fox."
Such optimism is often heard among network executives these days, as they pore over some heartening spreadsheets after years of worry over shrinking market share and increased competition from cable and online outlets. Freshman series such as CBS' drama "Scorpion" and ABC's "black-ish" seem to be scoring with viewers, even if the new lineups inevitably include some clinkers too (Fox's reality series "Utopia" and ABC's comedy "Selfie").
"Gotham" airs on Monday evenings, which has shaped up as perhaps the most competitive night on TV this fall, with viewers choosing among "The Voice," "Dancing With the Stars," "The Big Bang Theory" and NFL football on ESPN. Faced with such plenitude, Americans have increasingly turned to their DVRs.
About half of all U.S. homes now have access to the recording devices, compared with just 30% five years ago, according to the Television Bureau of Advertising. Generally, viewers prefer to watch sports and reality shows live while saving scripted dramas and comedies to watch at their convenience.
Where interpreting the ratings was once a fairly straightforward affair based on overnight ratings, it now takes much longer to get a full picture as viewers watching up to a week later are counted. (However, advertisers buying commercial time still consider only those who watch within three days.)
"For those of us who have been doing it for a long time, it's definitely more interesting — and confusing," said Jeff Bader, who oversees the schedule for NBC, which has seen its best ratings so far from NFL football and its returning thriller "The Blacklist." "Which numbers are we looking at? … What qualifies as a hit now?"
Sometimes the answer is clear.
ABC was pleased with the results for its crime thriller "How to Get Away With Murder," the latest from executive producer Shonda Rhimes, who is also behind the network's other Thursday night shows, "Grey's Anatomy" and "Scandal." More than 14 million viewers tuned in for the series premiere.
Over the next three days, 6 million additional viewers watched "Murder" on DVR — a new record for time-shifted viewing. The resulting 20.2 million total put the ABC show not far behind smash hits such as CBS' crime procedural "NCIS" and sitcom "The Big Bang Theory." The second week was down — to 17 million, including three days of DVR viewing — but "Murder" still looks like an undeniable hit and already has won a full-season order.
The same can be said for "Scorpion," CBS' ensemble drama about an offbeat team of geniuses. Including three-day viewing, the premiere drew nearly 18 million total viewers.
The network "not only got people there for the live and same-day viewing … [but also] people wanting to see it a day or two later," said Kelly Kahl, CBS' longtime scheduling chief, referring to the DVR numbers. This season, as has often been the case in recent years, CBS has ranked No. 1 in total viewers, although NBC is winning among the young adults most sought by advertisers. ABC and Fox are finishing a respective third and fourth in both categories.
Of course, no time-shifting device can save a series that simply doesn't interest viewers. And the new season has already seen a few of those.
Fox had high hopes for "Utopia," a costly reality series from John de Mol Jr., the TV mogul behind "Big Brother" and "The Voice." The producers dropped 15 "pioneers" from diverse backgrounds into a remote area and asked them to build a new society.
But critics attacked the first episode as too tabloid-y, with bleeped curse words and censored nudity abounding. Viewers stayed away; just 4.6 million tuned in for the premiere, and ratings have declined since. Fox yanked the series from its Tuesday berth and shuffled it to Friday nights, where the stakes are much lower.
"It didn't work out the way that we had hoped," Fox's Harrison said.
Many comedies have also had a tough time this season. ABC is struggling with "Selfie," a satire of social media, which opened to a mediocre audience of 5.3 million, then dropped 26% in Week 2. Despite a starring role for Kate Walsh, a household name thanks to "Grey's Anatomy" and "Private Practice," NBC persuaded fewer than 6 million to tune into her new comedy, "Bad Judge."
Fox also bombed with "Mulaney," a live-action comedy inserted into its Sunday-night animation lineup that includes "The Simpsons" and "Family Guy."
One exception among the comedies has been ABC's strong-performing "black-ish," a family sitcom starring Anthony Anderson that programmers paired with the comedy smash "Modern Family." Just more than 11 million tuned in the night of the premiere, with an additional 3.2 million catching it up to three days later. The show recently received a full-season order.
ABC scheduler Andy Kubitz is philosophical about the genre's overall problems.
"Comedies go through cycles of having difficulties resonating with audiences," he said. "Five or six years ago, everybody said comedy was dead. Then we had a renaissance. Now they are starting to think comedy is struggling again."
But such problems may be lightened somewhat by the newfound optimism about time-shifted viewing. Much of the change is coming from young adults, who expect to be able to watch entertainment on their own schedule, not a network's.
"Clearly viewers, especially younger ones, seek on-demand viewing," said Brad Adgate, an analyst for ad firm Horizon Media in New York.
Better to have the audience watching sometime than not at all, CBS' Kahl said.
He pointed out that programmers are putting all kinds of shows on — dramas, sitcoms, reality — and getting generally encouraging results so far.
"The audience is coming back," Kahl said. "This is network TV the way it's supposed to be."