With every passing week, the sudden blossoming of prime-time success that NBC experienced last fall is looking more like a mirage.
The ratings of last September through December, when NBC shocked the television industry by winning 13 of 15 weeks, have dissipated to numbers so small they have not been seen before by any broadcast network — certainly not during a rating period known as a sweeps month, when networks present their strongest programming.
When the official numbers are completed Thursday, NBC will finish this sweeps month not only far behind its regular network competitors, but also well behind the Spanish-language Univision. No broadcast network has ever before finished a television season sweeps month in fifth place.
NBC executives expected a falloff after the N.F.L. season, but last December they expressed hope that some momentum could be sustained. Now, the network is playing by the silver-linings playbook.
“This February was tough, but thankfully the fall did as well as it did,” said Jeff Bader, the chief scheduling executive for NBC. “If we had the fall we were expecting — which was an improvement, but not to be No. 1 — this month would have been a lot harder to take. This is just frustrating.”
It is also likely to be costly. NBC executives previously acknowledged that their entertainment operation has been losing hundreds of millions a year. The financial picture is exacerbated by the dearth of popular shows NBC owns that it can sell in syndication, an area that generates hundreds of millions in profits for competitors, especially CBS.
Advertising executives note that ratings this month on many shows are so low they may force NBC to offer a spate of what are known as make-goods — free commercials to cover shortfalls from rating guarantees. And in less than three months NBC must unveil a new schedule for advertisers, one that will emphasize the improvements of last fall, but will also contain a short list of holdover shows with attractive ratings to sell. That will put great pressure on the lineup of new shows NBC selects.
The network’s prime-time record this month is a litany of ratings sorrows: Shows that looked like hits last fall, like the new comedy “Go On,” have collapsed. New shows, like the comedy “1600 Penn,” started weak and have fallen fast. NBC even had the lowest-rated new network drama of all time, “Do No Harm,” which was rated 0.9 in the 18-49 category for its premiere this month and fell to 0.7 in its second week.
It was canceled after two episodes.
Perhaps more painful, because it was the favorite project of NBC’s top programmer, Robert Greenblatt, has been the fate of the Broadway drama “Smash.” Introduced last winter with great expectations — and a hugely expensive promotion campaign — “Smash” returned three weeks ago to audience indifference. Last week’s episode could not eke out even a 1 rating among viewers aged 18 through 49, the audience NBC sells to advertisers.
Over all, the network’s ratings have fallen so far that no episode of any show on NBC in February came within one million viewers of a show on PBS: “Downton Abbey.” And forget approaching the numbers of a cable hit like AMC’s “The Walking Dead.”
Nothing NBC has put on in prime time has matched even the appeal of the “Talking Dead,” a show with people simply discussing “The Walking Dead.” That show managed a 2.2 rating in the 18-49 audience. NBC’s best prime-time number for the month has been a 2.1, achieved by episodes of “The Biggest Loser” and “The Office,” a comedy that is about to go off the air.
Remarkably, the best-rated show on NBC all month has been “Saturday Night Live,” which produced two original versions in February, both times hitting a 2.3 rating, topping everything else on the network. “SNL,” though, is not even in prime time — and it is 38 years old.
“It’s like a calamity of events that has triggered this free fall,” said Brad Adgate, the director of research for the media-buying company Horizon Media. “SNL is the top show? That’s pathetic. We used to marvel that it was the highest-rated show on Saturdays. But the highest-rated show on the whole network is a staggering fact. This is a sweeps month. These numbers are amazing.”
What happened? NBC was understandably thrilled by its fall performance, which allowed Mr. Greenblatt to promote the turnaround in January. After years in the ratings desert, NBC’s new owners, Comcast, vowed that new leadership would reverse the failings, and things were already looking up.
Some saw signs of a mirage even then. One longtime senior executive, with experience at two networks, noted that NBC’s fall success depended heavily on four hours a week of “Sunday Night Football” and three hours of the hit singing competition “The Voice.” “A little bit of NBC’s success was that everybody else stunk so badly,” said the executive, who asked not to be identified by name because of continuing business with NBC.
No network had a breakout hit last fall except for NBC, which introduced “Revolution,” a drama broadcast after “The Voice” that attracted hit-level numbers, more than a four rating. “Revolution,” however, is a serialized drama that had to be rested. It will not return until March 25.
Neither does “The Voice,” and its absence has been most responsible for NBC’s precipitous slide. Mr. Adgate said questions can be raised about relying so heavily on “The Voice,” because no previous singing show has tried to mount two cycles in the same season. And no one is sure how well “Revolution” will perform after a hiatus.
Mr. Bader noted that some other programming reinforcements are lined up for NBC, including a new edition of “Celebrity Apprentice.”
“We will have some of our heavy hitters back on the schedule in a few weeks, and our performance will be much better,” he said. He also noted that another new drama, “Chicago Fire,” has settled in as a solid performer.
This fall, the network is counting on a new comedy starring Michael J. Fox to help reverse its fortunes. NBC, however, had to guarantee Sony television, the studio that makes the show — in which NBC has no ownership stake — that it would produce 22 episodes. The risk there is the cost of quick failure. On “Smash,” for example, NBC has already paid for 16 of the 17 planned episodes — at a huge cost estimated at $4 million an episode.
Mr. Bader said none of these developments have been cause for panic. He pointed with optimism to the prospects for a fall with football’s return and a February 2014 with the huge attraction of the Winter Olympics.
“Next year we need to do a better job of using our strength in the fall to push into January,” Mr. Bader said. “But we will be in a very different position regardless because we will have the Winter Olympics in February as a launchpad for the second half of the season.”
This really is sad. Expecting that Smash will be cancelled any day now.