It’s that time of the year again: TV networks are debuting new shows and hoping that established names will bring in huge ratings. These numbers became even more important than usual after Techcrunch published an internal email of CBS Interactive CEO Quincy Smith this week. Smith had forwarded to his staff a Contentinople article in which TV exes railed against Hulu, and suggested: “We should think about how hard it would be to prove that some ratings declines are a result of reckless hulu streams…”
CBS (s CBS) has been having a couple of good nights lately, with shows such as The Mentalist holding up against audience darlings like Grey’s Anatomy, and new shows like NCIS Los Angeles pulling in record audiences. But is that really because CBS is shunning Hulu and only posting full episodes of some of its shows to its own sites, CBS.com and TV.com? Is free online TV to blame for bad network TV premiere ratings? Take a look at fall TV shows popping up on torrent sites, and you’re gonna see a different picture.
TV schedules are a little bit like black magic, even in the age of TiVo and Hulu. Take CBS’s The Mentalist . The network moved the show to a new spot this season — Thursday nights at 10 p.m., where it will compete with ABC’s Private Practice once that show comes back on the air in October. The new spot probably could have given The Mentalist’s season premiere a solid lead, if it wasn’t for the fact that ABC premiered Grey’s Anatomy at the same time this week. Still, The Mentalist got 14.3 million viewers, which is only slightly less than last year’s series premiere and 26 percent above the numbers that CBS got for the same spot last year.
Would The Mentalist have fared any worse if the show premiere had been on Hulu.com as well, or on any of CBS’s web properties, for that matter? A look at online piracy indicates that online availability wouldn’t have done much harm. Case in point: The premiere episode of The Mentalist popped up on torrent sites before it aired on CBS this year. CTV premiered the show early in Canada, and P2P fans quickly redistributed a recording that has since attracted tens of thousands of downloads.
Other networks’ success stories don’t appear to be influenced by free online offerings either. The season premiere of FlashForward was watched by 12.5 million viewers, despite competing with CBS’s Survivor, which attracted 11.6 million. FlashForward is not only available in full on Hulu.com, but the show is also a big hit on torrrent sites like The Pirate Bay, where the premiere episode currently ranks as the third most-downloaded TV show.
This is not to say that free TV content online can’t have an on impact network ratings. Fox’s debuted its new teen comedy Glee last spring, and the season’s pilot has been available on torrent sites ever since. Maybe it wasn’t a big surprise that only 4.3 million viewers tuned in when Fox showed the director’s cut of that episode earlier this month. Still, the show has been having pretty solid ratings ever since and has actually impressed with a sizable audience share of 18-34-year-olds. You know, the ones that tend to download stuff and browse reckless sites like Hulu all day.