When a TV show stays on the air for over a decade, you tend to hear people complain it’s “worse than ever” (or something similar). If you go by ratings, that may be true. The most recent Dancing With the Stars season, for example, ended with the lowest ratings in the show’s history.
Saturday Night Live, which has soldiered on for 45 years, offers another example of a show with some viewer fatigue. Whether you point to the wildly unfunny moments of recent seasons or the show’s general ratings decline in the 2000s, you’d have to admit we’re not seeing peak SNL.
But that’s not to say SNL hasn’t had its moments in the past few years (quite the contrary, in fact). The 2016-17 season stands as the top-rated season in over 20 years. During a presidential election year, SNL often finds its groove.
When you look at the show’s worst seasons for ratings, none have come in a major election year. Overall, the three lowest-rated seasons have come over the past 15 years.
‘SNL’s’ lowest-rated season was the strike-shortened ’07-’08
Looking at a Forbes post covering SNL’s ratings from 1975-2018, you can’t dispute that the show has lost viewers since the turn of the new century. With more entertainment options than ever, that’s to be expected on some levels.
However, the lowest-rated season came when the show went through a writers strike (2007-08). Despite the presence of strong players like Bill Hader, Fred Armisen, and Andy Samberg, there were simply too many reruns to keep an audience tuning in every week.
Going by the numbers from Nielsen, the ’07-08′ crew managed only a 4.5 household rating. By contrast, the ’16-’17 cast regularly topped a 6.0 rating. Meanwhile, the best-rated seasons ranged from a 9.1 household rating in ’92-’93 to 13.5 in ’79-’80.
When you lose eight episodes (the equivalent of 40%) of a season (as the ’07-’08 crew did), you’re not going to hold an audience. However, the other two low points for the show had nothing to do with strikes.
The ’06-’08 and ’14-’15 casts had the worst-rated full seasons
While the Writers Guild strike definitely affected the ’07-’08 numbers, the previous season had no such excuse. With Armisen, Hader, and Will Forte in skits and Seth Meyers at the Weekend Update desk, SNL only managed a 4.6 household rating.
By the fall of 2014, Armisen, Hader, and Wiig had moved on (as had Meyers). In their place, viewers watched Sasheer Zamata, Leslie Jones, Colin Jost, and Michael Che come aboard. (Jost and Che took over at Weekend Update.)
That ’14-’15 cast worked on the lowest-rated season of the decade and tied the ’06-’07 group for the low point in the show’s ratings history for a full season. With another election-year fall season beginning in September ’20, it will be interesting to see if SNL can claim another ratings bump.
If the show manages to keep Kate McKinnon aboard, at least it will have a fighting chance. Fans of Larry David may also boost the show in 2020, depending on the Democratic nominee for president.