Broadcast and cable networks both try to produce highly rated programs, but broadcast networks face much higher pressure than cable networks to produce shows that are instantly successful. Broadcast programs tend to be dropped immediately if ratings are subpar, whereas on cable, programs with positive critical acclaim but low ratings might be continued for a few seasons to see if ratings eventually increase.
Consequently, the types of programs that broadcast networks can air, and the subsequent growth rates of these programs, differ considerably from the programs and program growth rates on cable. Broadcast networks tend to only air shows that are likely to earn high ratings in the first season, leading to programming that sometimes has a one-size-fits-all feel. Cable networks, on the other hand, can produce niche shows that might initially have low ratings but that have a chance to garner higher ratings several seasons down the road.
Cable programs, then, are much more likely than broadcast programs to exhibit significant season over season growth. Most broadcast programs start out with large audiences that begin to dwindle each year, while cable programs tend to start smaller and progressively grow larger each season.
Take HBO's True Blood, USA's Burn Notice, AMC's Mad Men, and TNT's Leverage for example. All of these shows enjoyed healthy growth with each additional season, with True Blood taking home the prize for the largest seasonal jump. ABC's Desperate Housewives, NBC's Heroes, CBS's CSI: Crime Scene Investigation and FOX's House didn't fare as well in that they lost audience with each progressive year.
Seasonal Ratings for 4 Cable and 4 Broadcast Programs
Average # of Viewers Tuning In to Season
Note: Data from Nielsen Media Research as reported by TVByTheNumbers & Wikipedia
That is not to say that there aren't a few anomalies on broadcast networks. CBS' NCIS and NBC's The Office have grown by 50% (11.8M to 17.8M) and 70% (5.4M to 9.2M) respectively since their first seasons. While those are impressive changes, the overall downward trend still remains for most broadcast networks. In fact, of the shows we researched for ABC and FOX, we couldn't find one that had grown in audience recently when comparing one season to another.
As the options from cable networks continue to increase, it is harder for broadcast networks to maintain their grip on audience. While broadcast networks still win in terms of audience size, cable networks are slowly catching up, producing numerous programs with large ratings, even if the ratings sometimes take a few seasons to develop. With the Fall 2009 season quickly approaching, broadcast networks are hoping as usual that they have huge hits on their hands. Cable networks also hope that their programs will be successful, but know that their shows likely have a bit more breathing room than broadcast programs, which tend to be dropped immediately if ratings are lackluster.
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