Why Shondaland’s Winter Premiere Ratings Aren’t as Bad as They Seem

A Democratic debate, some better broadcast competition and ABC’s limited promotion didn’t help “TGIT” returns

ABC thinks we should wait for three-day delayed-viewing ratings to appropriately judge Thursday’s Shondaland winter premieres — and the Disney broadcast network isn’t really wrong to suggest such a thing.

Last night, “Scandal” and “How to Get Away With Murder” suffered the worst of the “TGIT” drops versus their respective fall finales and prior season’s winter premieres (“Scandal,” for example, dropped 34 percent by the latter comparison), though those shows had some serious one-off competition from the two-hour PBS/CBS Democratic Debate, which also ran from 9 to 11 p.m. ET.

But, as they say on TV: That’s not all.

Beyond Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton, “HTGAWM” met its new 10 o’clock NBC competition in the form of Jennifer Lopez‘s “Shades of Blue” last night. While no live-plus-same-day juggernaut, the crooked cop drama is a hell of a lot stronger than Wesley Snipes‘ since-canceled “The Player,” which previously held the time slot.

More than “Shades,” Fox’s “American Idol” proved a force to be reckoned with last night, tying the combined ABC primetime lineup across their averages in the key 18-49 demographic and beating everyone among total viewers. Fox previously put up “Bones” and “Sleepy Hollow” this past fall, which can’t hold a candle to the singing competition.

Some quick irony here: Thursday winner Fox has sworn off those live-plus-same-day ratings, not reporting or really even acknowledging their existence, instead holding out for live-plus-three-day ratings. ABC is still totally cool with “live” ratings on a regular basis, except in this case, when it wants everyone to wait for the L3s. By Wednesday, when the L3s come out, ABC should be No. 1 and “Idol” will drop back.

From CBS, it was mostly “Thursday Night Football” battling for field position a few months ago. That’s stiff competition for sure, but NFL programming generally attracts the opposite gender from what Shonda Rhimes‘ shows draw, so they existed in some semblance of harmony.

Of course, here’s the problem with those justifications: “Idol” and “Shades” aren’t going away next week, or the one after that, or the one after that…

“TGIT” signed off the air for its fall-winter hiatus on Nov. 19. That night, “Grey’s,” which featured an attack on the titular Meredith Grey character, delivered a 2.4 rating in the main demo, which was up one-tenth of a ratings point from its prior four-episode average.

An hour later, “Scandal” got a 2.1. At 10, “How to Get Away With Murder” posted a 1.8. Both fall finales were two-tenths of a ratings point below their respective prior four-episode averages, matching season-low ratings in the process.

Then last night happened, and “HTGAWM” dropped 22 percent further, while “Scandal” slipped another 12 percent. For the sake of an 8 o’clock comparison, Grey’s ticked down just 4 percent. That time slot had lighter competition, at least from the dramatic genre, which we think it’s fair to classify a presidential primary debate as part of.

Let’s be clear: None of this is good news for ABC, Shonda Rhimes or their combined primetime lineup — but reasons for ratings declines matter, and sometimes excuses prove dramatic drops to be somewhat excusable.

Here’s one more: ABC didn’t really promote its bread-and-butter February 11 returns all that heavily. One network insider told us that after three months off, without the heavy marketing, casual or mid-level fans may not have even realized the “TGIT” shows were back. After all, with the launch of new series midseason, a network’s promotional assets are generally limited for returning shows — even its money-makers.

Plus, the break this time around was three weeks longer than last year’s holiday pause: In 2015, the shows came back at the end of January, rather than the second week of February.

To give you an idea of what ABC is withholding judgment for, TheWrap compiled three-day delayed-viewing increases for all the Shondaland Thursday shows. Here’s what we found: Season-to-date, “Grey’s” gains 50 percent over “live” viewing, “Scandal” soars 56 percent and “How to Get Away With Murder” jumps 67 percent.

ABC expects at least that to happen over the holiday weekend. Then — and only then, the network believes — we’ll see how much of a success or failure last night truly was.

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