How do we compare television networks? Do we just look at Nielsen ratings? Social media buzz charts? Corporate profit? There’s no one great answer.
Well, until now. Welcome to TV.com’s Network Power Rankings, as compiled by yours truly. My rankings involve an unbelievably advanced algorithm that considers ratings (Nielsen overnights and the DVR numbers), business matters (pilot orders, scheduling, hiring and firing), buzz (social media, goodwill, “viral” moments), and quality (good shows and episodes). So, like most power rankings, these include both objective and subjective analysis. But unlike most power rankings, these are 100 percent correct.
Another key point: I’m going to try to consider as many networks as possible in my analysis. However, while you won’t see HBO top the list every week, you also typically won’t see QVC or Outdoor Network on here (however, if there's an Outdoor Network Today’s Special Value on QVC, watch out). You’re going to be familiar with most of the names you see ranked, but I’m going to strive to mix in some less scripted-centric networks along the way.
And of course, we encourage you to produce your own network power rankings in the comments. It's a safe bet that the debate will get more and more interesting (and heated) as we near the Upfronts in May.
This first batch is based on much of January plus the first week of February, whereas future rankings will be tallied on a bi-monthly basis. Strap yourself in, queue up the song that amps you up the most (for me it’s Don Johnson’s “Heartbeat”) and enjoy the inaugural round...
Having the Super Bowl helps. The ratings didn’t top those of the last few years and the blackout proved how worthless the network's talking heads are. But, 108.4 million people is a big number. The Big Bang Theory is still doing great on Thursdays, Elementary is thriving (not to mention a pretty good show), and the network is still winning in the ratings with total viewers (even with TBBT and NCIS repeats). The Shawn Ryan Beverly Hills Cop pilot is moving forward, as is Hart Hanson’s Backstrom adaptation. Those feel like new CBS hits to me. The renewal of How I Met Your Mother for another year is unfortunate, but at least it’s the final season! Probably. Hopefully. (Full disclosure: TV.com is owned by CBS Interactive, a subsidiary of CBS.)
The ratings for Shameless (up 22 percent), Californication (up 21 percent) and House of Lies (up 10 percent) were so good in January that all three series were renewed for future seasons. Those numbers are also indicative of Showtime’s overall growth, which has been in-process over the last 18 months. The network is riding such a high right now that it can afford to make big moves like bringing Dexter back in the summer instead of the fall and using both it and Homeland to launch upcoming new shows Ray Donovan and Masters of Sex. All the awards love (at the Golden Globes and SAGs) for Homeland certainly doesn’t hurt, and neither does buying a script from Skyfall duo John Logan and Sam Mendes.
I was so ready to write a “Fox is in trouble” story. Yet, here we are just a few weeks into another season of American Idol and the show is back on top. It’s kind of terrible, but hey, ratings! The Following grew in its second week and people seem to like it, so we have to give the network props for its decision to hold the Kevin Williamson show until the midseason. New Girl is having a big month creatively and with DVR numbers, its ratings are fine. Glee is still big on social media and having a nice season as well. Letting Fringe conclude its story was a nice thing to do. Canceling Ben and Kate was not.
It’s weird to me that American Horror Story’s second season had significantly lower ratings than the first, but year two was most certainly an improvement creatively. The good news is that in both ratings and quality, The Americans started off strong (though dropped big—like 39 percent big—in week two) and Justified is doing well in its fourth season. Archer and Legit make a nice comedy block. In fact, the Americans-Justified-Archer trio might be the best on TV right now. The return of Anger Management is an unfortunate stain. Network president John Landgraf didn’t shy away from the “Is TV too violent?” discussion at the Television Critics’ Association press tour, which is what makes him one of the best leaders in the business. The decision to split the network into two (FX, centered on drama, and FXX, centered on comedy) is a curious but fascinating choice that I can’t wait to see play out.
Maybe the first surprise. Have you seen those syndicated Big Bang Theory numbers? TBS paid $1.5 million for each episode and at this point you have to imagine that they feel like they got a great deal. Check this: Two weeks ago, a 10pm Saturday airing wound up the 14th-highest rated show on cable that week. How is that even possible? Also, the first handful of episodes of Cougar Town’s fourth season have been so swag.
Girls and Enlightened are not ratings powerhouses, even by HBO standards. But! Enlightened is doing better in a non-horrible timeslot this season and more importantly, both shows are very, very good right now. Girls and Game Change’s big wins at the Golden Globes and the latter’s victories at the SAG awards bring even more awards prestige to the network that thrives on awards prestige. Development-wise: More Girls; more Lena Dunham and Jenni Konner shows; Kevin Dunn, Michelle Monaghan, and Wood Harris in the Matthew McConaughey/Woody Harrelson drama True Detective; and all kinds of cool people joining a Mike Judge comedy pilot makes for a nice string of moves. We probably don’t need another Tom Hanks-Steven Spielberg World War II miniseries, though. Come on, that’s just awards bait.
Like always, the Alphabet network had a weird month. Jimmy Kimmel Live’s move to 11:35pm has gone fairly well. The Sunday-afternoon NBA coverage brings in a lot of social media buzz. Modern Family, Grey’s Anatomy, The Middle, and Suburgatory are regularly ranked in the top 25-30 for live ratings and Scandal, which is on fire right now, pulls big numbers with DVR factored in. However, ABC also axed Don’t Trust the B---- in Apartment 23 this month (the network didn’t have a choice but still, ouch). Did you see some of the pilot scripts Paul Lee ordered? Betrayal! Venice! The Returned! Plus the upcoming premiere of Zero Hour. Haha. Ha. Ha.
Suits and White Collar are back, and the former is doing quite well in a tough Thursday-night time period. With The Rock’s return, Raw’s ratings and social media buzz are on the upswing, and like TBS, USA Network is buoyed by great numbers for a syndicated show. In this case, it’s NCIS—two episodes recently made it into the cable top 25. And though it’s a little older news, the network has a World War II-set sci-fi script going to pilot, which signals that USA could be moving away from the clear Character-based procedurals we’ve seen lately. The latest press for the upcoming Graceland backs that up.
Have you seen those Downton Abbey ratings? Over 11 million people watched the Season 3 premiere (across multiple airings, to be fair) and even against the Super Bowl the show garnered 6.6 million viewers and destroyed everything else in primetime. Although the show isn’t owned by PBS, those ratings are pretty staggering—and the reviews for this season have been quite a bit better as well.
I love The CW more than most people, so they’re at least making it into the inaugural rankings. Still, things are a little bleak over there. The stink of Gossip Girl is still odorizing the network’s new Monday-night series, The Carrie Diaries. It’s pretty good and the ratings have been, well, CW Monday-like. Arrow and The Vampire Diaries are chugging along—and doing fine when DVR ratings are considered—and it was kind of a big deal when both The Vampire Diaries and Supernatural made into the top 10 of the primary social buzz rankings a few weeks back. With those four shows plus Hart of Dixie and Nikita, The CW actually has a half-dozen completely watchable series on its schedule right now. I’m not sure that’s ever happened before. The news that the network is still trying to make The Selection work is promising, while the The Originals spin-off seems less so. Still, things are happening!
I’m still laughing about Do No Harm’s record-breakingly sucky ratings. The best part? Watching the pilot was even funnier. But NBC apparently didn't see the humor in the situation, as it axed the Jekyll-and-Hyde medical drama after two episodes. I guess the Thursday-at-10pm time period is one they're just going to have to ride out. No The Voice and no Revolution right now to boost the network's overall numbers. Unsurprisingly, Deception, which is dumb but entertaining, is flailing. Bringing back Gillian Michaels didn’t resuscitate The Biggest Loser. Christina Applegate is quitting the currently-on-hiatus Up All Night, which is already in dire straits and will probably end up canceled. NBC shows aren’t lighting up the DVR or social buzz rankings, though Community's return might help with that (the Season 4 premiere did fine in the ratings, but critics and fans haven't been too kind). And despite the overhaul, Smash returned to dramatically lower numbers than it achieved in its Season 1 finale and that were unbelievably, hilariously lower than the turnout for last year's Season 1 premiere. Pretty much the only consolation is a pair of Tina Fey-related bonuses for an entertaining Golden Globes telecast (shout out to my girl Amy P., too) and one hell of a final run of 30 Rock.
The good news is that NBC has a boatload of pilots in the works, many of them from talented people (Jason Katims, Alfonso Cuaron, Bill Lawrence, Carlton Cuse, Leslye Headland). The bad news is that the network's development slate also includes a romantic comedy pilot called Girlfriend in a Coma from Law & Order’s Dick Wolf, and a modern-day take on Alice in Wonderland from CSI’s Anthony Zuiker. Because it’s not a real pilot season unless NBC picks up something that makes you chortle audibly. And all of that, my friends, puts the Peacock squarely in last place.