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As the curtain comes down on the 2018-19 television season, the major broadcast networks found themselves sinking deeper into trouble.
Their once-dependable viewers have continued their migration to Netflix, Amazon and Hulu, and those who have yet to break the network habit are aging out of the group prized by advertisers.
At their annual presentations to advertisers in New York this past week, ABC, CBS and NBC emphasized that they were not mere TV networks but parts of mighty corporate families. The events were filled with talk of related cable channels, planned or extant streaming services, even the news divisions.
Fox, the outlier, seemed awfully lonesome in the wake of the Walt Disney Company’s acquisition of the bulk of the rest of Rupert Murdoch’s entertainment empire. The network no longer has the backing of a Hollywood colossus that included the FX cable channel and a massive studio.
While the overall TV audience is shrinking, however, it remains large enough to command billions of dollars from advertisers. A look at the highlights and lowlights of the season shows how the venerable medium is trying (and failing?) to stay relevant.
The Top Three
There were three genuine hits in broadcast television during the 2018-19 season: the NBC weepie “This Is Us,” the Fox reality show “The Masked Singer” and the CBS perennial “The Big Bang Theory.”
“This Is Us” and “The Masked Singer” averaged a 3.8 rating among adults younger than 50, and “The Big Bang Theory” was right behind, by a tenth of a point. The next closest shows — NBC’s “Manifest” and ABC’s “Grey’s Anatomy,” tied for fourth place — reached a million fewer viewers in the age 18-to-49 age bracket.
And what about next season? The prospects are grim, with “The Big Bang Theory” having broadcast its finale on Thursday. “This Is Us,” which NBC renewed for three more seasons, showed signs of wear, losing 30 percent of younger adult viewers and 21 percent of its total audience. That leaves “The Masked Singer,” a show that could lose a significant portion of its audience once the novelty of unmasking B-list celebrities in animal costumes wears off.
An Enduring Hit for ABC
“Grey’s Anatomy,” in its 15th season, remained a top-four entertainment show, with an average of nearly 10 million viewers an episode. More crucially, the series performs strongly among viewers between the ages 18 and 49.
That’s reassuring for ABC and its parent, Disney. The network recently renewed the show — created by Shonda Rhimes, who left ABC for a nine-figure, multiyear deal at Netflix — for two more seasons. “Grey’s Anatomy” has surpassed “ER,” which ended its run on NBC in 2009, as the prime-time medical show with the most episodes, and in the fall it will beat “ER” in the number of seasons as well. Ellen Pompeo, who earns more than $20 million a year, will continue on as Dr. Meredith Grey.
Krista Vernoff, the “Grey’s Anatomy” showrunner, signed a new overall contract with the network this year and has been charged with the task of breathing new life into the “Grey’s Anatomy” spinoff “Station 19,” which has struggled. At the recent upfronts presentation, Karey Burke, ABC’s entertainment president, promised a “crossover event between these series every week.”
“Grey’s Anatomy” is not the only network stalwart that has continued to score. NBC’s “Law & Order: SVU” is moving into its 21st season, and NBCUniversal spotlighted the show’s star, Mariska Hargitay, during its presentation at Radio City Music Hall. There was a reason for that: The show has real drawing power among younger viewers. The median age of the audience when the show airs is 57.5 — but that number is closer to 43 when people who stream or recorded the program are factored in, according to the NBC Entertainment co-president George Cheeks.
And speaking of “Law & Order” …
Mr. Network Television
It needs to be said each year, but with increasing emphasis: Dick Wolf, the creator of the “Law & Order” franchise, is helping to keep broadcast television alive.
Let’s start with the much-maligned Chicago shows the 72-year-old producer makes for NBC. The median age of their viewers isn’t exactly young, at around 61, but the audiences are remarkably stable. The total audience for “Chicago Fire” jumped 20 percent. There was no change for “Chicago Med,” and a 7 percent boost for “Chicago P.D.” These are among the only shows in network television that did not lose viewers during the 2018-19 season.
And Mr. Wolf — and his legion of baby boomer fans — isn’t just a boon to NBC. CBS has Mr. Wolf’s “FBI,” one of the most-viewed shows on TV, and it will add a spinoff. Fox has an unscripted Wolf show, “First Responders Live,” coming next month.
Late Night’s Cold War
The late-night wars are not what they were in the 1990s, in the days of David Letterman and Jay Leno. The viewership figures aren’t what they were back then, for one thing. And the acrimony among the stars of the 11:30 time slot isn’t what it used to be, either.
But there was a glimpse of the old fire on Wednesday’s edition of “The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon,” when Howard Stern told Mr. Fallon of the angst he felt in deciding which late-night venue he would select as the venue for promoting his new book.
It was between “The Tonight Show” and CBS’s “The Late Show With Stephen Colbert,” Mr. Stern told Mr. Fallon, and he got so worked up about his dilemma, he said, that he even called Mr. Colbert for advice.
As the satellite radio host recounted it for Mr. Fallon and his audience, he told Mr. Colbert that he was very worried about disappointing Mr. Fallon by choosing the CBS show — because Mr. Fallon is “very fragile,” Mr. Stern said. But, he added, Mr. Colbert solved the problem by encouraging him to go on “The Tonight Show” first.
“That’s nice of him to say that,” Mr. Fallon replied.
A moment later, in what seemed like his attempt to stoke the rivalry, Mr. Stern turned to the audience and said, “I was going to bring a piñata on and let Jimmy break Stephen Colbert’s face and have things pour out of it, because they really are in a late-night war.”
After nearly four years of going head to head with Mr. Fallon, Mr. Colbert has bragging rights. He averages 3.8 million total viewers, compared with 2.4 million for “The Tonight Show” and two million for ABC’s “Jimmy Kimmel Live!”
Mr. Colbert also looks poised to finish first among adult viewers under 50 for the first time. The CBS host, who surpassed Mr. Fallon among younger viewers a couple of months ago, has a narrow lead, averaging 678,000 viewers in the key demographic to Mr. Fallon’s 662,000.
There is some good news for NBC’s late-night slate. Despite a weakened lead-in, NBC’s “Late Night With Seth Meyers” is the clear ratings leader in the 12:30 a.m. hour., with an average of 1.5 million viewers. His CBS rival, James Corden, averages 1.4 million.
Like Mr. Colbert, Mr. Meyers delivers a program heavy on material critical of President Trump. And like Mr. Colbert, his closest competitor puts on a cheery, less topical show.
As the 2020 presidential campaign dawns, politics is the real king of late night.
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