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Fox’s Hidden Ratings Woes: Network Would Be Dead Last Without World Series, Super Bowl

Here’s how the broadcaster is hiding a soft season behind big sports ratings

My, how the times have changed. Just a few years ago, Fox declared the entire notion of the ongoing pilot season dead, complete with an “R.I.P.” tombstone graphic. This pilot season, however, no one at the network is resting, and very few on the entertainment side should be at peace.

Roughly three-quarters of the way through the traditional TV season, Fox finds itself just one-tenth of a Nielsen ratings point behind leader NBC.

That’s pretty good for the underdog and youngest-skewing broadcast network, right? Well, kind of. Most of the channel’s momentum can actually be attributed to its parent company’s Sports division, as a for-the-ages seven-game 2016 World Series (“Cubs Win!”) and an equally dramatic Super Bowl LI have performed the heavy lifting.

According to Nielsen’s “most current” ratings metric — which counts a week’s worth of delayed viewing where available — season-to-date, Fox is averaging a strong (for 2017) 2.3 across primetime. While that’s well-ahead of CBS (a 1.9) and ABC (1.6), it is also disproportionately skewed positively by sports.

When drilling down to entertainment programming only — so, no sports or live news — Fox falls all the way to fourth and a 1.4 average. NBC drops from a 2.4 to a 1.7, and a first place tie with CBS. ABC, which doesn’t carry the NFL, is steady with a 1.6 rating by both counts.

That means Fox loses 39 percent of its demo rating this season sans sports. NBC, which added some “Thursday Night Football” games this season and houses TV’s top series “Sunday Night Football,” drops 29 percent. CBS is less-reliant on the primetime game-playing — especially with fewer Thursday National Football League contests — losing just 11 percent. ABC is obviously flat.

Want more percentages? Of course you do! Another way to look comparatively at Fox is to contrast it with, well, Fox. The broadcaster is up 10 percent overall year over year, which is wonderful. Stripping away sports, it’s down 22 percent, which is not. The other Big 4 broadcasters are each down exactly half that.

Fox pays handsomely for its MLB and NFL rights, and it’s only fair to reap the rewards. Plus, there are some bright spots for its entertainment programming.

Freshman series “Lethal Weapon” has proven to be a good partner for “Empire,” for starters. Speaking of the scripted crown jewel, “Empire” may be trending down, but it’s still the highest-rated drama on broadcast.

The new “24” is off to a good start, though the franchise’s new installment is currently ranking as high as it is in large part due to a post-Super Bowl premiere. You didn’t really think we were done pinning Fox’s off-field triumphs on athletics, did you?

Meanwhile, “The Mick” is a strong comedy, though the audience is waning as midseason weeks go by. The jury is still out on Lee Daniels’ “Star,” so Dana Walden and Gary Newman should thank their lucky stars for what feels like Season 100 of “The Simpsons” and the seventy-fifth for “Family Guy,” their third and fifth best demo performers, respectively.

Seeing as how the Super Bowl won’t come back around for a couple of years, and the classic 2016 Fall Classic’s will be tough — if not impossible — to top, Fox had better hope for a lot of new life out of its development pipeline. Or at least, more “X-Files.”

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