‘Glee’ Ratings Plunge: Why Audiences Are Tuning Out

Are viewers tired of the gimmicks and exposure? Or is it just finding its real fans after years of hype?

Fourth in a series on fall ratings gainers and losers.

"Glee" has lost nearly a quarter of its audience this season — more than any other show with such high ratings. Is it burning out, like so many series shows that become near-instant cultural phenomena? Or just finding its real audience after years of hype?

In its current, third season, the cultural phenomenon has tried to return to its roots after second-season gimmicks tested even some die-hard Gleeks. It's unclear whether cutting down on special guests and thematic episodes has reduced viewership this season, if some fans have given up, or if something else is at play.

Also read: Fall's Biggest Ratings Gainers and Losers, From 'Men' to 'Chuck'

The show, which centers around a high school glee club, has fallen 23.9 percent in the coveted 18-49 demographic, making it No. 10 on TheWrap's list of fall's biggest ratings losers (See chart, left). We looked at returning network shows from the start of the fall through the week of Nov. 13, compared to the same period in the previous season.

Most of the other shows on the list are on the struggling CW or Friday night, a ratings dead zone. One, "Desperate Housewives," is in its last season, and another, "Community," has been pulled from NBC's schedule.

"Glee" is doing better than any of them — and better than most shows on television, in spite of its ratings drop. It has still averaged a 3.4 rating in the demo and 8.1 million total viewers.

Preston Beckman, Fox's executive vice president of strategic program planning and research, says "Glee" is settling into a "more realistic number" in its third season after two seasons fueled by intense media attention. Unique, unusual shows often benefit from such initial coverage, he said.

"Like any red-hot show, it becomes yesterday's news, and I don't mean that in a critical way. Press people are always running toward the flame," he said. "It's in its third season, and unlike … procedurals or more conventional shows, these types of shows are always going to start big. And then there's the question of whether there's an audience that's going to stay with the show for four or five years."

Also read: 'Glee': Who Hates It — and Why

Many risk-taking shows that capture TV critics' hearts — from "Twin Peaks" to "Heroes" — burn out fast in ratings. Beckman, who is certain "Glee" will return next season, says its continuing popularity proves it hasn't fizzled out. 

But it may be suffering from overexposure, said Horizon Media senior vice president of research Brad Adgate. It has already spawned a live concert tour, a filmed version of that tour, an Oxygen network reality competition, and endless singles.

"'Glee' is down I think alarmingly for a third-year show," he said. "I think one reason is kind of the inconsistent writing and storylines. Some of them, you kind of roll your eyes. And I think the show has been leveraged so much that it speeds up the fatigue for the viewer: the songs, the iTunes, the musical, the reality show. It kind of expedites the fatigue factor."

Few shows become cultural touchstones so fast: "Glee" has revived decades-old pop hits even as it addresses subjects like school bullying while offering primetime's most prominent portrayals of gay teens. It has also made scripted musicals desirable again, two decades after "Cop Rock" made them a joke. One of NBC's biggest hopes for midseason is the Broadway drama "Smash."

Also read: Why 'Glee' Was a Dud at the Weekend Box Office

But some critics and even fans accused the show of going overboard last season with guest stars (including Britney Spears, Katie Couric and Gwyneth Paltrow) and thematic episodes. (One centered around Spears, and others around Lady Gaga and "The Rocky Horror Picture Show.")

Co-creator Ryan Murphy also tested fans' loyalty before the start of this season by saying in June that stars Lea Michele, Cory Monteith and Chris Colfer would leave the show after their characters' graduate this season. He then backtracked, saying they could remain.

The high school setting offers opportunities for cast additions as well as departures: The fourth season could mean new students arriving at the school, and renewed media hype. (Can't you already picture the "Meet the New Gleeks!" TV Guide cover?)

Despite the show's renewed focus on its core characters this fall, it isn't giving up on special guests or theme episodes entirely: a Michael Jackson episode is reportedly in the works, and next week's Christmas episode features a guest appearance by Chewbecca.

There's no word yet on which Britney song he'll sing.