A TV Season Full of Lessons

Posted May 13, 2018 7:12 p.m. EDT

Ratings are down. Commercials are too long. Ad money is drying up.

Who’s ready to party?

With the annual upfront presentations beginning Monday, the broadcast networks will once again make their pitch to advertisers why they still matter in the era of Netflix and Hulu.

There are pressing questions. What will a Fox broadcast network look like without a TV studio after it’s sold off to Disney or Comcast? (Hint: Reality and sports). Can the networks still offer event television? Will the success of “Roseanne” mean more programming strategies focused on the heartland?

The 2017-18 TV season gave hints about the answers to some of those questions. Here’s a look at what it showed:

Rookies Stand Tall

Before the season began, super showrunner Chuck Lorre said his “Big Bang Theory” spinoff, “Young Sheldon” would have to “live or die on its own merits.”

Well, the little guy is still standing.

“Young Sheldon” was one of five rookie shows that smashed into this year’s top-10-rated entertainment shows. The CBS series, a prequel to “The Big Bang Theory,” averaged 16.5 million viewers, finishing just a hair behind the CBS stalwart “NCIS.”

Another rookie hit was “The Good Doctor,” ABC’s drama about an autistic doctor, which came out of nowhere and held strong all season. Ryan Murphy’s new medical procedural “9-1-1” on Fox was another sleeper hit with more than 10 million viewers a week. And NBC’s reboot of “Will & Grace” managed some of the highest ratings in television, though those numbers cooled off toward the end of the season.

And then there’s ABC’s “Roseanne.” The series will have broadcast just nine episodes by the time the season ends next week, but it’s in a horse race with “This Is Us” for being the top-rated entertainment show. Not a bad return after two decades off.

Colbert Dominates, but Fallon Steadies

Stephen Colbert’s late-night turnaround has been nothing short of remarkable. A year ago, he was narrowly losing to Jimmy Fallon’s “Tonight Show.” Colbert’s CBS show is now drawing nearly 4 million viewers, more than 1 million more than Fallon.

But in somewhat of a surprise, Fallon has kept his narrow lead among 18-49-year-olds. It is a mere 80,000 viewers, but that number has held steady for roughly seven months, suggesting that his audience is staying put. And last week, Fallon saw his biggest win among adults younger than 50 since March, raising the question of if Colbert will ever be able to top him in that demographic.

At 12:30 a.m., meanwhile, Seth Meyers and James Corden have almost precisely the same numbers they did a year ago. But although Corden follows Colbert and his larger audience, NBC’s Meyers remains No. 1 at that hour.

Returning Series, the Good and the Bad

In recent years, a slew of hit shows have had big sophomore ratings slumps. Do viewers have enough energy to stick with a series after it has been sampled?

“This Is Us” had no reason to worry.

The NBC weepie had an impressive 14 percent growth in viewers in its second season, when it finally answered what exactly happened to Jack.

That’s in sharp contrast to Fox’s hip-hop drama “Empire,” the hit of the 2015 TV season. It has shed viewers at an alarming rate for three consecutive seasons, including losing 30 percent this year. The show is coming back for a fifth season, and it remains the top-rated show on Fox, but can it stop the bleeding?

“The Bachelor” was the only series that had a bump in the ratings last season. But it went into reverse this year. Roughly a quarter of adults younger than 50 abandoned the show after the lead character, Arie Luyendyk Jr., was largely seen as a dud. “Designated Survivor,” an ambitious ABC drama starring Kiefer Sutherland, lost a whopping 43 percent of its audience and was canceled this month.

Shonda Rhimes’ final offers at ABC may be struggling — her new court drama, “For The People” has underwhelmed, despite being renewed for a second season — but “Grey’s Anatomy” is, 14 seasons deep, still a major hit, averaging better than 11 million viewers a week.

And perhaps most surprising: Dick Wolf’s suite of shows — “Law & Order: SVU,” “Chicago Fire,” “Chicago Med” and “Chicago P.D.” — all held steady.

‘Riverdale’ Booms

The Netflix effect is real.

Even though networks have made a serious effort to avoid Netflix and instead sell their back libraries to Hulu in recent years — several media companies have an ownership stake in the smaller streaming service — there’s an argument to be made against that.

One season after the CW’s slick-and-sexy young adult drama “Riverdale” appeared on Netflix, viewers flocked to its second season on the network.

Though the series still has a relatively small audience — 2.5 million viewers, and a relatively low 1.0 rating among 18-49-year-olds — it’s one of the youngest in TV, with a median viewer age of 37. The Netflix boost was enough for the show to achieve an eye-opening 42 percent growth in viewers.

Event Television Remains Powerful

The trend line for broadcast networks is not great in an on-demand world. But there is one thing they can still hold over everyone’s head: big events, available to viewers without a cable or streaming subscription.

Consider a three-day stretch in March.

When Stormy Daniels appeared on “60 Minutes,” it was a total blockbuster. The episode drew more than 22 million viewers, the best “60 Minutes” performance in nearly a decade, and it was a bigger draw than the Grammys, the Emmys and the Golden Globes.

Just a couple of days later, “Roseanne” had its premiere to jaw-dropping numbers. With seven days of delayed viewing factored in, the premiere drew more than 25 million viewers, the biggest scripted TV event in years.

Both moments provided some relief — and a much-needed reminder — to network executives that they still have some fight left.

At least for now.