“The Bachelor” this week aired the finale of its 23rd season, its 11th after moving to its long-running time slot on Mondays at 8 p.m.
The dating reality franchise, for all the devotion of its hardcore fans (many of them in the media), has been on a slow but undeniable ratings descent since its rebirth with that 2009 move. And what happened this week reveals some larger truths not only about its contestants but about ABC, the broadcast business and why it’s all getting shaken up.
“The Bachelor” finale a decade ago was a landmark event, watched by nearly 16 million people. Yet since then, the number of people tuning in to the climactic episodes has steadily declined. In fact, it’s gone down every single year but one. When numbers came in Wednesday for the finale, in which Colton wooed Cassie across Spain and Portugal, they showed an episode that was watched by just 8.2 million people. It wasn’t the lowest ever. It was just the second-lowest ever, slightly above last year’s nadir of 7.9 million (which happened despite all that press for a shocking extended scene.)
The “Bachelor” numbers for the rest of this season weren’t, alas, any more encouraging. The series averaged about 6.5 million total viewers, down 18 percent from what was basically an all-time low last year. Attracting more than 6 million viewers is still respectable in this tough broadcast climate, no question. But it’s a far cry from where “The Bachelor” once was — the 12.2 million who tuned in every week of 2010, say.
Fans might argue that it may have just been an off year, driven by Colton’s decision to go off-script, or maybe the hangover from that cringe-y 2018 finale. The show’s popularity, they might say, has returned before, and it can return again.
Maybe it will. But if it doesn’t, this wouldn’t be a great badge of shame.
Well, it wouldn’t be a great badge of shame to hang on the show, which in its 23rd season can hardly be expected to pack the punch it once did. It is more embarrassing for ABC, which from a business standpoint would really want to avoid having such an old show shoulder its lineup and viewership ambitions in the first place. Old shows, after all, offer little upside for advertisers or viewers, who more than ever want to feel like they’re climbing aboard a new train. They don’t augur long-term revenue stability for a network. And they reinforce a brand perception that broadcasters are out of fresh ideas.
Equally dispiriting for ABC is that a television senior citizen like “The Bachelor” isn’t exactly an anomaly on the Disney-owned network. Of the 25 most-watched broadcast programs among the 18-to-49 demographic from the most recent television season that are still on the air — that is, the ones that could reasonably be called hits — nearly all of those representing ABC are at least 10 years old. There’s “Grey’s Anatomy” (debuted in 2004), “Modern Family” (debuted in 2009), and of course “The Bachelor” (debuted in 2002).
Only one hit, “The Good Doctor,” is younger than a decade. (Not surprisingly, ABC has already renewed it for next season.) And 10 years is a long time; I mean, it’s been just about that long since Barack Obama was inaugurated.
These aged shows are a marked contrast from many of ABC’s core competitors. NBC actually had four hits younger than 10 years old last year, including crown jewel “This Is Us.” Fox had two, and will have at least a third this year with the success of “The Masked Singer.”
Even CBS, which has its own issues with aging shows and demographics, will finish this season with at least three hits that potentially have their best years ahead: “Young Sheldon,” “FBI” and “God Friended Me," the latter pair actually first-year shows.
Sure, in this age where streaming has most of the heat, a lot of broadcast hits are old. But ABC’s are really old.
Nor is there light on the immediate horizon. The network’s big hope for the spring is the new season of its revival of “American Idol.” The title first debuted nearly 17 years ago. Beyond this season, “Dancing With The Stars” and “The Conners” are out there too, both far from spring chickens. One of the few young bright spots is “A Million Little Things,” ABC’s attempt at a “This Is Us” melodrama. It has shown some ratings promise since it debuted in the fall but remains far from a sure thing.
The age of all these shows is the reason ABC brought back “Splitting Up Together,” the Jenna Fischer divorce comedy, for a second season this year despite the fact that it regularly struggles to attract even 3 million viewers. The network just really needs to make new shows happen.
This all is especially tough for Disney, which on the movie side seems capable of generating fresh movie hits at will — it had all three of the highest-grossing domestic movies last year, has the biggest hit thus far this year in “Captain Marvel,” and is about to whip up another Franklin Mint with “Avengers: Endgame.” Yet its broadcast-television business is in a decided rut, with seemingly few chances of getting out.
All of which comes around to that biggest entertainment-business news of the past few years: Disney’s purchase of Fox.
Next week, early in the morning of March 20, the acquisition of Rupert Murdoch’s linchpin will officially close. A lot has been said about Disney scaling up to beat digital players, and for good reason: Critical mass is what can help legacy companies compete with the tonnage and deep pockets of a Netflix.
But there’s also a simpler calculation going on here: ABC badly needs fresh hits. And in buying Fox, it is buying the Twentieth Century Fox Television studio, both its pipeline and its executives, that can potentially deliver them.
20th has one of the best track records around in this department. While its hit rate isn’t as high these days as it used to be (nothing on broadcast is), it still has some of that touch, producing “This Is Us,” current Fox hit “9-1-1” and several others with upside. And while, sure, as a network you could try to buy individual shows from a studio, most studios these days don’t sell much outside their home network.
Plus you wouldn’t get the executives. As part of this move Disney is basically pushing out its own executives and putting all the 20th TV folks in charge of its own ABC operations, a remarkable ‘the taken over will now take over’ narrative one doesn’t see much in modern mergers.
The TV business is innately cyclical. Part of the problem with having hits is that you’re incentivized to keep them on the air longer than you should, which then gives other networks time to wipe the slate clean and come up with something fresher, displacing you. Then the same thing happens to them. (This actually is the exact dynamic that occurred with NBC, which after years of dominance fell off in the late 2000s and early 2010s, forcing it to reboot, which is why it has all these young hits now.) It’s the Darwinian nature of broadcast television. Built into the ecosystem is the idea that no one creature can rule the jungle for too long.
It’s unfortunate for Disney that ABC’s own fall from the perch is coming at a time when the ad-driven broadcast business is already so far down and sinking lower. It’s fortunate, though, that the company is buying a studio with a history of hits. Because ABC is pretty banged up. And pining for the days of massive “Bachelor” ratings isn’t going to heal it.