Will smart, adult shows like The Good Wife ever be rewarded with big(ger) ratings?

The Good Wife is the best drama on TV currently. It’s smart, subtle, well written has terrific performances from its stellar cast and usually commands roughly 13 million viewers a week. How Robert and Michelle King juggle office politics, with the tale of a scorned wife, political stories, romance, and even a tinge of soap opera style backstabbing etc is astounding. It has also accomplished something special. It’s a drama on CBS that has acclaim, and more importantly buzz. This isn’t a slam at CBS. They are the most consistently successful network by far. But let’s be honest, it’s not as if Criminal Minds gets people all atwitter on twitter. Yet Criminal Minds is a huge hit for CBS and currently still gets at least mid 3’s in the demo.   Even more concerning is that while NCIS:LA has maintained its numbers from last year, The Good Wife is down (all while its buzz has increased), although that might have more to do with less live viewing in the 10pm hour accross the board.

The Good Wife is the kind of show that has made the cover of Entertainment Weekly and is loved by viewers of such acclaimed cable shows like Mad Men. There are very few shows that are that universally loved by such a wide range of people. There are certain critics and bloggers who have even said they never saw themselves watching a show called “The Good Wife” and on CBS no less, yet it’s their favorite show.

And still, The Good Wife can’t seem to get a higher demo score than a 2.2 most weeks. Now on any network these days that’s a great number for 10pm, but on the mighty CBS, it’s on the lower end of the ratings spectrum. It’s even more noteworthy because its somewhat incompatible lead in NCIS:LA, never gets lower than a low to mid 3. Just for perspective here’s how other CBS dramas do at 10p. The Mentalist is easily the best performing 10p drama on TV, usually getting a low 3. Hawaii 5-0 is consistently getting a 2.9 – the highest number any NEW show is getting at 10p and next to The Mentalist is the second highest rated 10p performer anywhere on network TV. Even more in its favor is it rises dramatically with DVR usage growing at least 1.2, to usually average around a 4. Even the Criminal Minds spin-off which has only been on since the middle of February and this week followed a rerun of its parent show – beat The Good Wife by .1 this week.

It made me wonder if there is something about sophisticated, smart, nuanced dramas that will forever relegate them to no more than a low 2? I would venture to say that there are many people who don’t watch CBS AT ALL, who watch The Good Wife. So does that mean the average CBS viewer isn’t watching? Mike & Molly can get a 3.2 and then Hawaii 5-0 can retain most of that number at 10. Between NCIS:LA and The Good Wife, there is at least 1.0 disparity most weeks. To my unscientific mind, I would guess that while there is a different viewer that shows up to CBS for The Good Wife, maybe the regular CBS viewer that loves the NCIS’s, Criminal Minds, CSI’s etc, likes it less. I have no data to back this up, I am just conjecturing, but I would think that if the CBS loyalist was watching The Good Wife AND all these cable loving enthusiasts were too, the number would be at least on par with The Mentalist and Hawaii 5-0, no?

Let’s be honest here, contrary to the many ratings obsessed sites that want to intimate that CBS will move The Good Wife to Friday next year, I still see The Good Wife as a major win for CBS Tuesday at 10p. In a way The Good Wife is a unique and rare show for the network in that it brings them prestige, acclaim, Emmys, and I assume, major ad rates. The show reaches many high income viewers and advertisers seem willing to pay more for that and while it’s not getting a 2.9,  most weeks it’s still winning its 10p slot. Plus CBS is so solid virtually everywhere else, they can afford a few less tenths on the one show that brings them acclaim and buzz like no other of their dramas.

But it’s a little disconcerting that between The Good Wife and its time period rival Parenthood (which is another sophisticated, subtle, beautifully written and acted drama), both shows are at best on the low side of a 2.0. Add in the brilliant Fringe which has a sci-fi bent, a genre that usually lends itself to more viewers and there seems to be a trend that the smarter and more you ask your audience to pay attention, the harder it is to maintain good ratings. Just to be clear, in all these cases subtle and sophisticated doesn’t mean boring – these are compelling, exciting dramas.

This reminds me a lot of one of my favorite shows of all time, thirtysomething. It was probably the first “demo hit” at a time when there were only 3 networks. It was never a monster hit and lived on the bubble for most of its 4 year run. All the shows created and executive produced by Marshall Herskovitz and Edward Zwick (My So Called Life, Relativity, Once &Again) were similarly brilliantly subtle and all were ALWAYS on the bubble. Once & Again had a 3 year run. The other two not even a full season.

Even in the cable realm, Mad Men is probably the most acclaimed show on Cable and it can’t get above a .8. Contrast that with AMCs The Walking Dead and there is proof that AMC can bring the masses to the table, they’re just not flocking to Mad Men, well at least not on live viewing. Terriers, in my humble opinion, was the best new drama on all of TV this year. The ratings were so low that it was virtually a forgone conclusion by ep 5, it was probably done. No network could make money off 3 live viewers watching a show.

I am actually just postulating here because I honestly don’t know what the answer is. Maybe in the future, there will be more adult, nuanced dramas that ALSO will be monster ratings hits. Plus Fringe was just renewed and the other dramas (except for Terriers) will most definitely be back next year. So there’s no cause to sound the alarm. I guess I just hope that the lower numbers these shows generate (in comparison to the rest of the “hits” on TV), don’t make the broadcast networks shy about developing more nuanced dramas like these. Based on the exciting development season currently underway, there is much to be optimistic about.

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7 Responses to Will smart, adult shows like The Good Wife ever be rewarded with big(ger) ratings?

  1. Cas says:

    I think ‘buzz’ is overrated. Just because a show don’t set twitter or critics on fire, don’t mean people are not watching. CM, NCIS, NCIS:LA and most of CBS shows may not make it to the EW cover but they are popular. This goes to show that buzz is not a factor in making a show successful, if it was Mad Men would be at the top of the cable shows.

    If we look at how popular TGW is then TGW does have more viewers than say two big demo winners, Glee and Modern Family. The only reason why TGW is not considered a success is not because people are not watching but because the desired demo is not watching. To be fair to TGW, this show is not for the same crowd that watch Glee but since in the ratings world only the 18-49 years old tastes counts than shows like TGW will not stay on the air long. Instead of asking if shows like TGW will ever be rewarded with bigger ratings, TGW DOES have 13 million viewers(not counting DVR + 7 days viewing) that is more than all of ABC’s shows except for Grey’s and DWTS and more than anything on NBC and more than any drama and comedies on FOX, you should be asking, when will the ratings success be base on how many watch instead of many of a certain segment of the population watch a show.

    Since I am a CM fan, I’ll just point thisout, CM did trend when the season 6 started and when the last two episodes of Paget Brewster were shown CM did trend world wide ( got the print screen to back this), so yes some of CBS shows do set twitter on fire at times 😉

  2. bigtvfan says:

    I hear you Cas. I didn’t meant to imply, that buzz or twitter is the “be all”. There are many shows that “trend” on twitter that are huge bombs. NCIS is a phenom that is unprecedented in TV history (a show going up in ratings as it ages) and it gets little buzz relative to its mega success. What I meant to convey is that The Good Wife is widely regarded as the best drama on TV currently. It airs on CBS, a network that you have to be something so left of center like “Viva Laughlin” to bomb outright. Yet even in a timeslot where there is less competition, it’s not setting the world on fire in the demo (yes the total viewers are noteworthy). What I was trying to illustrate with the EW cover and “buzz” was that, I believe, there are people coming to CBS for this show that don’t normally and yet it sill is a lower demo performer than one (i.e me) would think. I was attempting to postulate that maybe since it is a bit more adult and nuanced like other lower performing dramas, that might be the cause. But as I said, I have no data to prove that to be true. Was merely lamenting its lack of bigger ratings status and trying to understand or guess why. But I understand your point and thanks for sharing it.

  3. forg says:

    What’s frustrating is that while The Good Wife maintained its total viewers from the 1st season, the demo dropped! It was hovering in the high 2s last season with almost the same number of viewers, it started the season with 2.5 which while not great is passable for 10pm but the low 2s is really alarming for CBS. I don’t think CBS will cancel it, they’ll find ways to make it work, if this was a veteran show like Cold Case and Without a Trace I would worry for its cancellation due to cost and relatively low ratings not matching up, and as you’ve mentioned is in a position where they can afford to have a ‘low rated” show on their lineup. I’m really curious how CBS will make schedule The Good Wife next season. Maybe the Monday comedies would be a better fit? I’m okay with a Friday move due to low ratings expectations

  4. Sophistication, intelligence, and nuance are off-brand for CBS, and the medium of television. I’d rather read something or interact with people. I watch television for mindless escapism, to take a break from living.

  5. Ya know, I feel like I saw this discussed recently with the critic from AV Club, who commented that Good Wife recaps never get more than 25 or so comments, while comments on Glee number in the hundreds.

    I wonder if the lack of ‘buzz’ is a direct reflection of the strong quality of the show; to find problems with it you really have to nitpick. And nitpicking makes for boring reviews, and boring conversations. It’s much easier to wax eloquent about good ideas with flawed execution (Glee). And lest anyone forget, even critical canard Mad Men has taken more than its share of criticism, and often deservedly.

    The Good Wife doesn’t make those kind of missteps; certainly there’s the occasional expedient plot twist, but no one behaves out of character, the writers don’t mistake ‘unpredictable plot twists’ for ‘impossible plot twists,’ and so on.

    What needs to happen is that the word needs to get out that this is a ‘fast’ show. It’s brilliant in every respect, but it isn’t slow! It actually rewards the weekly viewer with a thriller like pace.

    And that’s the end of my fanwanking about Good Wife. (Seriously, I love it).

  6. JLC says:

    It’s not just dramas. Single camera comedies, which tend to be more subtle than multi-camera “filmed before a live studio audience” comedies, are also taking a beating. This is not to bag on all multi-cameras. The Big Bang Theory is pretty funny. But it is also far less daring and original than its time slot competitor Community, which it routinely trounces. Modern Family is the only single camera that seems capable of building an audience. I am not hopeful for network TV’s future.

  7. The problem is the title — the good wife. Most people won’t even watch a show by that name. Change the name of the show, and it’ll do better. It’s the best show on TV — but not the last few episodes. They must have new writers.

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