If you happen to be a fan of Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. I have some specific instructions for you: breathe a sigh of relief. AoS has been beaten up by Nielsen ratings pundits since the start of the fall season, but there's still enough of you to ensure the series will be sticking around. Besides, ABC (and the Walt Disney media juggernaut behind it) has banked too much into the series to just abandon it even if its ratings were to enter sudden freefall, and not just in production or advertising dollars either; Disney still plans on using the series as a massive tying thread between the various films in the blockbuster Avengers franchise and beyond. Does ABC still think the picture can look a little more rosy? Of course it does - the box office returns of Avengers, along with Iron Man 3 and Thor: The Dark World highly suggested an almost automatic lock for AoS' mega-success. Not just a solid breakout hit; I really do mean a mega-success and ABC budgeted, produced and marketed AoS accordingly. When I last talked about the ABC vs. CBS battle we saw just how lopsided that battle was in CBS' favor (and how I know absolutely nothing in forgetting that NCIS: Los Angeles exists). Sara Bibel over at TVByTheNumbers rolled out the most recent Tuesday numbers and now NBC is joining in with The Voice vastly outdistancing AoS in the ratings with almost 15 million viewers by itself and newcomers About a Boy and Growing up Fisher outperforming their ABC counterparts. If it looks like AoS is struggling to even make a noticeable dent in either show's numbers, does ABC have FOX's own ratings woes to thank?
Above image taken from Collider
The TV ratings game is a lot like a game of Monopoly at the world's most sober (and boring) frat party: people are putting in pen caps as player pieces because you ran out of official ones long ago and fighting over a few $20 bills and Baltic Avenue can mean the difference between bankruptcy and staying in the game. It's also a game that's often if not usually independent of the actual quality of the show - as TVByTheNumbers' own Bill Gorman and Tom Shaw repeatedly state, they're just a ratings numbers site, not a critical review site, and small numbers effect the critically praised and lampooned alike (if you're wondering, they both like pulling for Suburgatory if pushed to give an actual qualitative opinion). Not only is the number of TV households in America a very finite, fixed number, but it's actually shrinking: Bloomberg reports that the number of TV households in 2012 was down compared to 2011. By half a million households. Though the rest of the world may think it's practically an American birthright to have a TV, having even just 10% of the total U.S. population tuned into your program is considered outright phenomenal. It doesn't measure perfectly - it's making rough estimates translating households into actual viewers and only recently has it even come to measure online streaming in a somewhat half-assed fashion - but it's measuring exactly the metrics the sponsors care about. Yes, theoretically a new program can try to gain new viewers who don't traditionally tune into TV that hour, but for the most part a television program succeeds from the cannibalistic death of another and small gains (and their reciprocal losses) make huge differences.
That's why it's interesting for AoS fans to look at the numbers for Glee, which Bibel puts down at a 1-rating/3-share (or in other words, 1% of all TV-owning households and 3% of all TV-owning households with their TVs actually on - the number typically considered most useful - are watching it) for last Tuesday. This translates to only a bit over 2 and a half million viewers. Bibel says it's not exactly a series low or even a season low - but it's still pretty low. AoS on the other hand did hit a so-far series low with a 1.7-rating and a 5-share, or just over 5 million viewers - but it's still hanging in there. So if Glee's viewers didn't tune into AoS, where did they go? It's very likely, if not most likely that they simply didn't bother to tune in at all - at least for that night. The Sochi Olympics meant an almost Christmas Season-like second winter gap in programming (as most networks simply conceded to NBC's Winter Games coverage figuring everybody would be watching that instead - and with well over 15 million viewers on multiple nights vicariously experiencing Southwest Russia they weren't exactly wrong) and long breaks mean people not yet getting with the program when their favorite programs return with new episodes. Those viewers not returning within a few months or at least by April starts indicating a conscious choice.
And of course there's the matter of exactly where they'll return. Could they potentially bolster AoS to say, a stabilizing 2.2-rating/6-share as it had prior to the Olympics?
What about other, related programs? Part of what ABC had been banking on with AoS' predicted success includes The Goldbergs and Trophy Wife. With the exceptions of Modern Family, The Middle and to a lesser extent Suburgatory ABC has struggled to find successful single-cam comedies - AoS was supposed to help change that. It hasn't. That said, the two shows are still beating both New Girl and Brooklyn-Nine-Nine (and in fact are pretty much the only shows they're beating on broadcast).
Does that mean Brooklyn-Nine-Nine fans should be worried while those who tune in for Trophy Wife should breathe a sigh of relief as well? Not necessarily. Ratings aren't completely independent of quality (otherwise television would be even more lazy than it already is) and critical accolades do matter. Tom Shaw in particular seems to think there might be hope for the FOX comedy yet especially since the critical attention seems to be catching up with a slight increase of viewership. Trophy Wife is nearly completely on the ropes on the other hand, and ABC may see its timeslot as an opportunity for yet another future entry into its revolving door of single-cam one-season wonders (barring Shaw's prediction of a massive executive shake-up).
So if you do happen to be into Trophy Wife - uh, better not miss an episode then.
UPDATE: And what do you know, TVByTheNumbers just reported that Brooklyn-Nine-Nine was indeed just picked up for a second season by FOX.