Sunday's primetime performance may cause many sleepless nights for broadcast chiefs, because several disturbing trends came together at once
You could understand if broadcast network executives wandered through Monday in a daze, like they'd had a very strange dream the night before.
Zombies were chasing them. And Jesus was there. It was Easter Sunday, so most of their shows were repeats. And the only broadcast programming that thrived — an NCAA basketball game on CBS — happened to contain a moment both nightmarish and grotesque.
The worst part: It wasn’t a dream.
Sunday's primetime performance may cause many sleepless nights for broadcast chiefs, because several disturbing trends came together at once.
Their networks, which are all down this season, had low viewership thanks to reruns and new shows that underperformed. Basic cable conquered with AMC's zombie drama "The Walking Dead" and History's miniseries "The Bible."
Even prestige cable got its licks in. HBO's "Game of Thrones" — a show that people have to buy a premium service to see – earned more viewers than ABC's "Red Widow" and came in just below NBC's "The Apprentice," shows the broadcasters give away for free.
Sunday night could represent the future of television: Cable gaining viewers as networks offer aging reality shows and underwhelming scripted ones. Only sports are still a sure thing.
Broadcast networks have two big excuses for their mostly low ratings Sunday, one more valid than the other.
First, they played mostly repeats. (Fox aired no originals, and NBC aired reruns of "The Voice" before the new "Apprentice" episode.) Of course, it isn't fair to expect repeats to fare well against new shows.
Broadcasters also can argue that fewer people tuned into their new shows — ABC's "Red Widow" and "Revenge" were both down 17 percent in the key demo, and "Apprentice" hit a season low – because of the Easter holiday.
They might have a point, except that History's "The Bible" miniseries scored a record 11.7 million viewers for its finale, and AMC's "The Walking Dead" drew even more souls — 12.4 million.
Maybe the holiday gave the Jesus-related programming a boost — but you wouldn't expect it to help the zombies.
Both "Walking Dead" and "The Bible" drew more twice the numbers of ABC and NBC's shows. Only the NCAA briefly beat the cable giants in total viewers, and its lead-in helped CBS's new shows do decent but unspectacular numbers.
Broadcasters can take heart in the fact that cable networks can't usually perform as well as they did Sunday, because they don't yet have enough shows. AMC and HBO roll out their prestige programming Sundays, essentially ceding other nights.
But other cable networks are starting to stake out midweek wins. Airing on Tuesdays, FX's "Sons of Anarchy" was able to beat the network competition this fall for eight of its 13 episodes.
Broadcasters arguably have a harder task that networks – they have to aim for the largest possible audience, year-round, rather than score niche victories on slow evenings.
They also can't show things as sexual as "Game of Thrones" or as violent as "Walking Dead" – although sometimes they do by accident. The leg injury that befell Louisville Cardinals player Kevin Ware Sunday was arguably the most horrific thing on television Sunday.
Live sporting events are becoming the only ever-reliable performers for broadcasters. During the roughly 40 minutes that it aired in primetime Sunday, the Louisville game had more total viewers than "The Bible" or "Walking Dead" did later in the night. It peaked at 17.9 million from 7 to 7:30 ET.
In the clearest sign of sports' power, NBC's "Sunday Night Football" is the top-rated program of the season, as it was last season. It now outscores any scripted show, as well as reality competitions like NBC's "The Voice" and Fox's "American Idol."
"Idol" spent eight years as television's top show, but on Thursday had its lowest-rated episode ever. For the season-to-date, it is behind scripted shows like CBS's "The Big Bang Theory" and "The Walking Dead" and in a close race with "The Voice."
But the "The Voice" is also down, as is Fox's other singing show, "X Factor."
Adding to the broadcast networks' woes, they have no major hits this season. NBC's "Revolution" premiered big in the fall, but was down when it returned last week after "The Voice."
The top-rated scripted series of the season may turn out to be "The Walking Dead," which is locked in a tight competition with "The Big Bang Theory" to lead in the 18-49 demographic most important to advertisers.
So if reality competitions aren't working for networks, and new scripted hits are in short supply, what are networks to do?
For one thing, they're borrowing an idea from cable.
Monday morning, CBS unveiled a first-look at the ambitious new 13-part summer series "Under the Dome," based on the Stephen King novel of the same name.
Networks all but abandoned the miniseries in recent years, but have taken a new interest in them given HBO's mastery of the genre and the recent success of FX's "American Horror Story."
Fox, FX's corporate cousin, is developing four limited-run "event series," as the network calls them. If they succeed, like "Horror Story," there seems to be nothing to keep Fox from turning them into ongoing dramas, as FX did with "Horror Story."
It's no accident that two of the broadcasters' new limited-run series – "Under the Dome" and Fox's "Wayward Pines," have horrific elements. After all, horror has worked for "The Walking Dead" and "American Horror Story."
They're making it hard for broadcasters to sleep.