The Internet Was Wrong: Network Television Isn’t Dying. Ratings Compared To 1999 Are Steady.

I saw yesterday that last week’s episode of The Blacklist set the new US record for most viewers added on DVR in a seven day period, adding 6.62 million viewers with its last episode. In fact, as DVR ratings go, The Blacklist now holds the top 6 increases ever from live ratings to live plus DVR ratings in total numbers. That was interesting, but the number that stuck out for me was the overall viewers number once DVRs were taken into account: 15.4 million.

That’s not a bad number at all. In fact, I thought, 15 million viewers compares well to old-school Nielsen ratings, before cable began eating into network viewership, before the writer’s strike, before DVRs. So, I thought I’d see how it actually does compare to the ratings back before the slew of “Network Television is Dying” trend pieces began plaguing the Internet. What I discovered was this: Once you take into account DVR viewership, network television is doing nearly as well as it did 15 years ago, when ER and Friends were the top rated shows on television. In fact, the two top rated television shows in 2014 get more viewers than the top two television shows in 1999.

Wait? What? Network television isn’t dying? But what about all those trend pieces? Were they wrong?

Let’s look at the numbers. There are no lists with the top 20 Live+7 ratings for the year, so I basically went through several weeks of those and ranked the last first-run episodes of the top 20 shows on network television. Then I looked at the top 20 television shows in 1999. Then I added up the total viewers for all the top 20 programs in 2014 and 1999.

Here’s what I found:

2013-2014 Ratings (with 7 days of DVR viewers)

1. NFL Sunday Night Football 27 million

2. Big Bang Theory 25.2 million

3. NCIS 24.6 million

4. Intelligence 19.7 million

5. NCIS Los Angeles 19.1 million

6. Person of Interest 17 million

7. Blue Bloods 16 million

8. The Blacklist 15.4 million

9. American Idol 15.4 million

10. The Voice 15.3 million

11. Elementary 14.7 million

12. Modern Family 14.6 million

13. Criminal Minds 14.4 million

14. The Following 14.2 million

15. Hawaii Five-O 13.7 million

16. CSI 13.6 million

17. Castle 13.3 million

18. The Mentalist 13.2 million

19. Grey’s Anatomy 13.1 million

20. Scandal 13 million

Total Viewers Among the Top 20: 332.5 million

1998-1999 Season Long Average Ratings

1. ER 25.4 million

2. Friends 23.5 million

3. Frasier 22.5 million

4. Jesse 20.1 million

5. NFL Monday Night Football 19.6 million

6. Touched by an Angel 19.5 million

7. Veronica’s Closet 19.3 million

8. 60 Minutes 18.7 million

9. CBS Sunday Movie 17.3 million

10. Everybody Loves Raymond 15.6 million

11. 20/20 15.4 million

12. The X-Files 15.3 million

13. Drew Carey 14.9 million

14. Home Improvement 14.8 million

15. NYPD Blue 14.4 million

16. Walker Texas Ranger 14.4 million

17. Jag 14.2 million

18. Becker 13.9 million

19. Providence 13.9 million

20. Ally McBeal 13.8 million

Total Viewers Among the Top 20 Shows: 346.5 million

Difference: 14 million viewers

I’m terrible at math, but I think that only represents a 4 percent loss over the last 15 years.

Maybe, you say, 1998-1999 was a fluke down year for network television? Well, according to the 1999-2000 ratings, provided here, where each rating point represents approximately 1 million viewers, the top 20 programs that year amounted to 258.4 million overall viewers, which is nearly 75 million LESS viewers than in 2014’s top 20 programs. Even if you assume a rating point equals 1.2 million, viewership for the top 20 was still less than the top 20 in 2014.

Granted, there could be a huge difference between the shows below the top 20 in 1999 and the shows below the top 20 in 2014, but without access to specific Nielsen ratings for those shows, it’d be hard to know. Based on what little I evidence I could find in a cursory search of the Internet — the ratings points for the top 100 shows for a week in October 1999 and the overall viewership for the top 100 shows in the 2012-2013 season (which is a little like comparing apples to dented apples), I can say that in 1999, the 65th highest rated program during a week in October was Party of Five, with a 5.8 rating. In the 2012-2013 season, the 65th highest rated show in terms of viewers was Suburgatory, with 6.8 million viewers. So, the comparisons are roughly equal (maybe even more for 2012-2103).

Obviously, there’s a margin of error based on the numbers the Internet provides, but I think it’s safe to say that — once DVR viewership is accounted for and all the caveats are in place (including an increase in the overall population) — the number of network television viewers in 2014 is roughly the same as in 1999.

So, no: Network television isn’t dying. It’s just being time-shifted.

Source: EW, TVBytheNumbers, SFGate, Deadline