One of the early hits of the fall television season tells a story of a world that suddenly goes dark. That show, NBC’s “Revolution,” is starting to look a lot like a metaphor for the broader world of TV.
Television viewing of both cable and broadcast networks among adults under age 50 fell for the first two weeks of the new fall season, Nielsen data show, a much weaker start than the industry experienced last year.
The major broadcast networks lost an average of 15% of their viewers in the 18-49 demographic compared with the first two weeks of last season. In that same group, viewership of ad-supported cable channels dropped 1%, according to Nielsen.
The figures show less of a decline among people over 50, indicating that overall television audiences are getting older. Among all adults, the declines at broadcast networks were 11% while cable’s overall audience rose 4%.
While it is still early days, and the figures don’t account for some delayed viewing on digital video recorders or video on demand, the data amount to unhappy news for the TV industry.
Viewership tends to be higher in the early part of the TV season, tailing off in the second half after football ends and networks start showing more reruns.
The viewing slump suggests traditional television is being hurt by intensifying competition from online video outlets such as Google Inc’s GOOG -0.51%YouTube and Netflix Inc. NFLX +0.66%
The networks, meanwhile, stress that many TV watchers are simply watching less live programming and instead recording it with digital video recorders. Nielsen hasn’t yet released figures that include viewing delayed by up to three days. But in a report on Thursday, Nomura Securities analyst Michael Nathanson said that historically programs viewed up to three days after air date tend to see audience increases of 3.8 percentage points over standard ratings, which include only same-day viewing.
“There is little doubt that early 2012/13 network results have been disappointing,” Mr. Nathanson added.
Ad buyers said they are watching the ratings drops closely, to see if the declines persist. “It’s only two weeks into a 36 weeks season,” cautioned Brad Adgate, a senior researcher at Horizon Media.
Still, most advertisers are protected from depressed ratings by provisions in their contracts that require networks to provide additional ad time if audience levels don’t meet certain guarantees.
The early results are promising for at least one network: NBC. Its 18-49 audience is up 11%, hinting at a nascent comeback for the network after years in the prime-time doldrums. NBC has been elevated by “Sunday Night Football,” the highest-rated show on television, as well as the third season of its singing competition “The Voice,” which has so far outshined its rival on Fox, “The X Factor.”
“The Voice” has additionally provided a strong launching pad on Monday nights for NBC’s new post-apocalyptic drama “Revolution.”
NBC is a unit of Comcast CMCSA +1.82% Corp, while Fox is a unit of News Corp.,NWSA +1.04% which also owns The Wall Street Journal.
Worst hit have been News Corp.’s Fox and CBS CBS +0.77% Corp’s CBS, each down around 25% in the 18-49 demographic that is most important to advertisers. CBS continues to be the top-rated network but it has pulled one of its four new shows, comedy “Made in Jersey,” from its Friday night time slot, the first such move by a broadcast network this season. Two of its other new shows, “Vegas” and “Elementary,” have done well.
A few networks are still in the process of introducing their lineups, so the ratings for the weeks of Sept. 24 and Oct. 1 are just the first snapshot. ABC, for instance, didn’t debut “Nashville,” its most anticipated show, until this past Wednesday. ABC is owned by Walt Disney Co. DIS +0.40%
Some big-name cable channels have also experienced sharp declines in the 18-49 demographic, with a 41% decline at MTV and a 27% drop at Comedy Central, both owned by Viacom Inc., VIAB +0.15% and a 13% drop at News Corp’s FX. Meanwhile, cable news channels like Fox News, CNN and MSNBC have drawn larger audiences as the presidential election approaches in November.
“If nothing else,” added Michael Morris, an analyst at Davenport Research & Co, “this race will be a lot tighter than it has been in awhile.”