Fall TV Season: Ratings vs. Reviews

  • Publish Date: October 7, 2010
  • Comments: ↓ 13 user comments

Viewers don't listen to critics, but they should

ImageThe season's closest thing to a hit

Now that we are three weeks into the fall season, the broadcast networks have had a chance to launch all of their new scripted shows. While there have been a few shows with positive reviews (though, as we'll explore in another article at the end of the month, nothing with quite the level of acclaim as a few shows in past seasons), the news from the ratings front has been dismal.

As the Los Angeles Times' Scott Collins reported earlier this week, "For the first time in at least five years, not a single new show has cracked the top 10 either among total viewers or the advertising-friendly demographic of adults aged 18 to 49." And that trend has continued with the most recent weekly ratings issued by Nielsen. Just one new show -- CBS' Hawaii Five-0, ranked #16 -- managed to land in the top 20 highest-rated shows for the week ending October 3, 2010. A pair of new shows (Fox's Lone Star and ABC's My Generation) were each canceled after two weeks of miniscule ratings, and a third -- NBC's Outlaw -- has just halted production and appears to be on its last legs.

In other words, fall's crop of new shows doesn't include a hit, and already has numerous failures. That said, there have been some new shows with some critical success, and not every new program is a ratings failure. But is there actually a connection between how well a show is reviewed and how many viewers tune in to watch?

There is no correlation between reviews and ratings ...

At first glance, the answer to our question is a flat-out no: reviews do not seem to have any impact on viewership. Below, we have charted the number of viewers (in millions) for each new program compared to each show's Metascore, which indicates the critical consensus for the show on a scale of 0 (terrible reviews) to 100 (great reviews). Green dots are shows that received generally positive reviews, yellow is for mixed reviews, and red is for generally negative reviews. (Note that we have excluded shows on The CW from this report, since that network's ratings are far below those of the other four broadcast networks.)

If there were a strong connection between review quality and viewership, we would expect the dots to line up diagonally from lower left (low ratings, bad reviews) to upper right (high ratings, great reviews). Instead, as you can see, there does not appear to be any linear pattern, although you could probably play a rousing game of connect the dots. (The correlation coefficient for the data displayed below -- which indicates how strongly viewership corresponds to Metascores -- is virtually zero, indicating no discernible correlation.)

However, while there is no direct correlation between ratings and Metascores, all but three of the 10 most-viewed premieres had generally positive reviews:

10 Most-Viewed New Shows, 2010 Fall Season
Show Viewers Metascore   Show Viewers Metascore
1 Hawaii Five-0 (CBS) 13.83 65   6 Outlaw (NBC) 11.51 36
2 Blue Bloods (CBS) 12.81 70   7 The Event (NBC) 11.19 68
3 $#*! My Dad Says (CBS) 12.48 27   8 No Ordinary Family (ABC) 10.54 65
4 Mike & Molly (CBS) 12.24 60   9 Law & Order: L.A. (NBC) 10.52 64
5 The Defenders (CBS) 12.09 65   10 Detroit 1-8-7 (ABC) 9.75 64

Viewers in millions; numbers are overnight Live+Same Day ratings reported by Nielsen Media Research

... even when we remove network advantages ...

You may have noticed one pattern when looking at the most-viewed shows above, however: they are all on CBS. That's not a coincidence: CBS is currently the highest-rated network, and thus if more people are already tuned into CBS than to other networks, it makes sense that their new programs would also be higher rated than those of other networks. So what happens when we take this built-in advantage out of consideration?

Below, we can see the same viewership vs. Metascore comparison that we had above, but this time the viewership is displayed as the percentage increase (or decrease) compared to the average viewership for all programs on each show's network. While there is a bit more of a correlation detectable this time, it is weak at best. (The correlation coefficient for the data displayed below is 0.295, which indicates a slight positive correlation.)

Again, even though there is only a very slight correlation between Metascores and premiere viewership (vs. network averages) for all of the season's new programs, we can see below that every one of the shows that outperformed their network's average viewership had good reviews. (We are excluding NBC's Outlaw, which, since it aired a week early, was the only new program in a sea of reruns, and thus doesn't make for a good comparison.) Of course, if we go back to the chart above, we can see that the opposite is not true: there were several positively-reviewed new shows that recorded below-average ratings. Thus, good reviews seemed to be a requirement for -- but not a guarantee of -- better-than-average viewership totals.
10 Most-Viewed New Shows Compared to Network Averages, 2010 Fall Season *
Show vs. Net Metascore   Show vs. Net Metascore
1 The Event (NBC) +37% 68   6 Undercovers (NBC) +5% 64
2 Law & Order: L.A. (NBC) +29% 64   7 Blue Bloods (CBS) +2% 70
3 Raising Hope (Fox) +15% 76   8 Detroit 1-8-7 (ABC) +2% 64
4 Hawaii Five-0 (CBS) +11% 65   9 $#*! My Dad Says (CBS) 0% 27
5 No Ordinary Family (ABC) +10% 65   10 Mike & Molly (CBS) -2% 60

* Excludes shows that premiered prior to the official start of the season (9/20).
vs. Net is the percentage increase in viewership for the show compared to the average viewership for that network during premiere week.

... but viewers seem to agree with critics after all

So, we've learned that viewers are tuning into the premiere episodes of new shows with little if any consideration for how critics evaluated the programs. But common sense dictates that those viewers won't stick around for subsequent episodes if they didn't like what they saw in the premiere. If a lot of viewers dislike the show, the drop in ratings from week one to week two can be substantial; if, on the other hand, viewers generally like what they see, then the second-week decline will be much smaller.

Below, we've charted the percentage declines in viewership (from week 1 to week 2) for each of the fall season's new shows, and compared those declines to each show's Metascore. For the first time, we can see a fairly strong correlation between the two measures. Generally speaking, the higher a show's Metascore, the less of a decline in total viewers for the show's second episode; similarly, the lower the Metascore, the more viewers that program lost from its premiere total. (This overall trend is indicated by the dotted line, and note that the correlation coefficient this time is over 0.6.)

In other words, the better a show's reviews were, the more viewers seemed to like the show and stick around for a second episode. (In fact, the critics' favorite new series of the season -- Raising Hope -- is the only show not to experience a decline in total viewers in its second week.) Thus, it turns out that viewers and critics do agree on the merits of each new fall show. While that won't help save a well-reviewed show like Lone Star that had few people tuning in to start with, it does suggest that viewers might want to pay closer attention to reviews before deciding what to watch in the first place.

10 Smallest Viewership Declines in Second Week, 2010 Fall Season
Show Decline Metascore   Show Decline Metascore
1 Raising Hope (Fox) 0% 76   6 Hawaii Five-0 (CBS) ↓11% 65
2 The Whole Truth (ABC) ↓5% 56   7 Better With You (ABC) ↓11% 65
3 Detroit 1-8-7 (ABC) ↓6% 64   8 Blue Bloods (CBS) ↓12% 70
4 Lone Star (Fox) ↓7% 73   9 The Defenders (CBS) ↓14% 65
5 Mike & Molly (CBS) ↓8% 60   10 No Ordinary Family (ABC) ↓15% 65

Decline is the percentage drop in total viewers in the show's second week when compared to total viewers for its premiere episode.

While that concludes our look at the fall television ratings, we aren't through with our examination of the fall TV season. At the conclusion of the month -- after some additional new cable series have debuted -- we'll be back with a look at the best and worst new shows of the season, and a comparison of each network's performance.

What do you think?

How much consideration do you give to professional reviews before deciding whether or not to watch a new program. Did any critics steer you in the right direction this season? Let us know in the discussion section below.

We're sorry, but comments are closed for this article.

Comments (13)

  • Marcus  

    I use critics comments to find shows to "try out" but often don't agree with critics opinions. Blue Bloods was disappointing, really badly written and thereby a waste of a good cast. Boardwalk Empire is well worth a watch from cable.

  • Eric  

    I love Hawaii 5-0, Blue Bloods, Nikita, and No ordinary Family. Nikita is a very good show and I hope the CW keeps it. I don't usually watch the CW, but Maggie Q has got me hooked.

  • Anonononon  

    Rubicon & Treme are the best new shows this year(2010). Nikita is fun. I haven't seen Boardwalk Empire.

  • lucas  

    i dont really watch tv that much, but when i do i get dvd sets of an entire season to watch, before i get those however, i always check the metascore to see if its a worthwhile show. None of these new shows interest me at all.

  • Andy  

    For the most part, I tend to watch cop and legal shows, and avoid family shows (both comedies and dramas) and reality programming. I usually pay attention to Metacritic scores and reviewer comments before watching a show. And I noticed one thing in particular about this season's new shows. So many of the new shows had scores in the 60s. No breakout, must watch shows. Few real clunkers. It's like the networks and their producers have found safe formulas and don't stray far from them.

    As a result, I found a good number of shows to sample this fall. And only a few that I've discarded because they were just that bad. But then, I wouldn't call myself a "discerning" viewer. Using my Tivo, I'll watch up to four shows a night and this season has brought me enough acceptable shows to keep me in front of my 52" plasma screen.

    But I think the more selective viewers are finding the overwhelming number of just "acceptable" shows not worth watching on a regular basis, or are picking a few that may catch their fancy for one reason or another. That probably accounts for the drop in viewership for most shows from week one to week two, the decline probably continuing as the season progreses until each show finds its loyal base. There's just nothing special among this season's new shows. Just a bunch of formulaic shows that pass the watchable test without being offensively stupid.

  • Patrick  

    Too bad. I really really liked Lone Star. And after reading the comments, maybe I should give Nikita another chance. I thought it was kinda stupid and the acting was bad, but I'll give it another shot for 1 or 2 episodes. Terriers too. Out of the new shows I like: Mike & Molly (could be better, but main characters are good and funny), Raising Hope (quirky, but with good acting), No ordinary family ('cause it's like Heroes), The Event ('cause it's like LOST) and Hawaii Five-0.

    What I really didn't like was: Blue Bloods (just boring to me. bad writing too), Undercovers (that show is just wrong!) and Outlaw (although that wasn't too bad).

  • RayRay  

    Have to agree with Kian & Jordan. Nikita is pretty darned good. Simon West is solid, and Maggie Q is terrific - thought she'd show a lot of skin after that pilot, but it's to her credit (and to the writers' credit) that they didn't have stoop to that level to make a great show. She's more often in turtlenecks & jeans than in skimpy bikinis.

  • A.C.  

    I really don't care for anything new on network TV. Last year at this time we had Modern Family, which is still great. Hawaii Five-O is the only network show watchable thus far, and even that struggles to keep my attention. Terriers is the only new show worth watching right now, which really says something (since I find anything about cops, doctors, lawyers to be ridiculously boring and recycled).

  • Roger  

    Personally, I won't watch a thing until I've seen some reviews. There's just too much I can watch or do with my time without wasting my time on something that the critics have already evaluated as mediocre. I like metacritic but sometimes wish it were more timely - I like to know how the reviews are stacking up several days in advance so I can plan my week. Also, I have come to find that I tend to agree more with certain publications than others, and some are excessively generous. Drama programs are more easily agreed upon, than comedy; humour is really more of a personal preference. I think that programs given ratings in the 50's up to the mid 60's are often barely okay while those in the 70's are generally good and 80 and above are superior - I think giving a green light to a program that ranks as a 61 is generally way too generous.

  • Annelise  

    Your metric did not work for me. I tried all the critically adored shows. The only one I liked and am still watching is Hawaii Five O. Oh, and Terriers, which I guess you are not dealing with as it is cable. But it is not doing so well in the ratings anyway. Even though you critics liked it.

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