After years of languishing in last place in the fall before coming to life in January with the return of American Idol and 24 to win the season, Fox turned the lights on in a big way last fall. There was the introduction of Glee, solid performances from its returning shows led by House, and an ALCS championship and World Series won by the Yankees. But this fall, the network has returned to its old struggling ways, leading the broadcast networks with the steepest ratings declines for the first 4 weeks of the season, down 12% in adults 18-49 and 8% in total viewers. It’s been a rough fall for Fox from the start, with the shockingly low-rated premiere of the now-defunct new drama Lone Star on the very first night of the season. Fox was at a disadvantage going into the season as it was saddled with the less watched NLCS championship this year as part of its arrangement with TBS, in which the two finals alternate between the two networks. And then on Friday, the Rangers beat the Yankees to become ALCS champions and make it to the World Series for the first time — a great feat for the Texas team but a big blow to Fox as Yankees-less World Series generally draw significantly lower ratings than those with the MLB’s marquee franchise in them. Also, the NLCS final on Fox failed to go to 7 games this year, with the deciding 6th game falling on the least watched night of television, Saturday. (Fox still did respectable business last night with a 3.0 rating in 18-49 and 10.2 million viewers.)
There have been bright spots: sophomore Glee is on fire, topping all network series this fall, and reality veteran Hell’s Kitchen is doing solid business on Wednesdays, the only reality series to grow since its season premiere this season. But beyond that, things have not gone well, with new series mostly faltering (though Raising Hope has showed promise creatively and has received a full-season order) and returning series mostly soft, including flagship drama House. And then there is Friday where Fox is practically nonexistent, with The Good Guys falling below Dollhouse levels, most recently logging a 0.6 demo rating this week. On top of that, Fox has embroiled in a nasty carriage dispute in the country’s biggest market, New York City, where the network has been blacked out in some 3 million Cablevision homes for the past week. (On the bright side, the impact of the blackout on Fox’s World Series ratings would not be as great with New York’s home team out.)
The problem with the ratings declines this fall is not isolated to Fox. ABC is down 8% in 18-49 and 4% in viewers from last fall, its new series have largely misfired (ABC is yet to hand out its first full-season pickup), and its returning shows are also down year-to-year. Even CBS, the most successful broadcast network this fall that has dominated the ratings race for the first 5 weeks, has slipped below last fall’s 18-49 levels by 1%. (It is still ahead in total viewers, by 2%). With red-hot football season this fall and dismal ratings performances for its shows last fall that makes for favorable comparisons, NBC is running higher in 18-49 (+1%) and total viewers (+3%) despite middling performances from its series this season. As a result, Fox, ABC and NBC are all currently tied for second place in 18-49 with a 2.8 rating, trailing leader CBS (3.3).
But, unlike ABC or NBC, Fox has a lot to look forward to in midseason. While ABC no longer has reliable midseason replacement Lost waiting in the wings, and NBC has no Olympics like last year to carry the momentum when its football coverage ends, Fox has American Idol, which, even if it continues to decline, is still expected to deliver respectable numbers. And it also has a little sports event called the Super Bowl.