Year-end TV ratings report card: NBC, Fox, and The CW hit their stride

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Dec 21, 2017, 10:57 PM EST (Updated)

Unlike its genre-rich streaming and cable competitors, good old-fashioned broadcast television hit its highest points in late 2017, mostly with conventional programming, even as The CW stood apart by continuing its heavy lean on shows like Riverdale, Arrow, and The Flash to hold loyal viewers.

Late-year ratings decisively handed NBC the top spot among broadcast networks, largely on the strength of sports, sitcoms, and reality fare. NBC’s trio of Sunday Night Football, The Voice, and the revived Will and Grace sitcom led it to the strongest showing among networks through the final 12 weeks of the fall viewing season, pulling 33 percent more viewers than second-place finisher Fox, according to TV Line.

The CW, meanwhile, churned along with its heavy roster of genre favorites, largely pulled from the DC Extended Universe. While The CW’s numbers through year’s end can’t compare with the big four, they do reflect a “do-what-works” approach to drawing and retaining a loyal fan base.

Nielsen Media Research said as much in its year-ending report. “Don’t count out the little guy — shows that may not have cracked the top 10 in viewership made up for it in social buzz, demonstrating the dynamic value of television in 2017.”

That’s a strategy that appears to work on the streaming TV side of things, where viewers can take in an entire season’s worth of content in a single marathon binge and then share their thoughts with like-minded fans. while all the shocks and cliffhangers are still fresh. But apart from The CW, most networks relied on the episodic nature of scheduled programming to keep their ratings high.

Tellingly, even most of the top-rated returning network shows fell in the ratings versus same-period numbers a year ago. The exception? The CW’s own Riverdale, which in its second season shot up 40 percent in the 18-49 year-old Nielsen demographic.

Among broadcast sci-fi shows, the one that came closest to mainstream “must-see” status was Fox’s The Orville, which ended the period in a six-way tie for 21st place among the 18-49 year-old demo, according to Variety.

When Nielsen pulled the camera far enough back to include all cable programming, though, shows outside the broadcast milieu — including genre favorites — came away as winners, particularly in the service’s buzz-measuring “social programs” metric, which rates shows by how frequently they were mentioned on social media.

In that department, HBO’s Game of Thrones reigned supreme, followed by AMC’s The Walking Dead. Both shows led a list of more traditional episodic programming (Fox’s Empire came in third, followed by NBC’s This is Us.)

Whether football’s your thing, or you’re more interested in how Seth MacFarlane will continue to make space funny when The Orville returns for its recently-announced second season, the options to watch what you want — and to watch it your way — are as wide open as they’ve ever been.

“Overall, television in 2017 offered a bit of something for everybody,” noted Nielsen, “even in places we didn’t expect.”

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