It used to be that when Nielsen issued the final program rankings on the day after the season ended, the ratings book was closed.
But as DVRs play an increasingly larger role in how Americans watch their favorite shows, you have to wait a few weeks after the end of the season for the final playback tallies that include all viewing within a week of a show's initial telecast.
And the rankings themselves can be misleading since programs that air throughout the September-May season (a combo of originals and repeats) are stacked up against programs like sports, reality shows and limited-series dramas that air only original episodes. This season, for example, seven of the top 10 series in 18-49 broadcast program rankings aired no repeats -- because they each sat out a big chunk of the season.
So the only way to get a clear picture of the truly most popular series in 18-49 is to compare only first-run telecasts.
In an apples-to-apples look at the top broadcast series for original episodes (see list below), NBC's "Sunday Night Football" remains on top in 18-49, but CBS' surging "The Big Bang Theory" pulled within half a ratings point and overtook ABC's "Modern Family" as the No. 1 scripted program and No. 2 overall.
In total viewers, CBS' "NCIS" finished comfortably ahead of "Sunday Night Football" and "Big Bang."
The top 50 series in adults 18-49 for the 2012-13 season includes five newcomers, led by dramas "The Following" (Fox) and "Revolution" (NBC). In a bad sign for comedy, though, no first-year half-hour that's returning next season is among this season's top 50 (ABC's canceled "How to Live With Your Parents" ranked 46th).
ABC's "Scandal" was the big gainer among returning shows, rising 35% from last year. "The Big Bang Theory" was among four other shows gaining ground: "The Voice-Tuesday" (NBC), "The Bachelor" (ABC), "The Biggest Loser" (NBC) and "Grimm" (NBC).
"Sunday Night Football," "Person of Interest" (CBS) and "Parenthood" (NBC) were all basically flat while the shows that limited declines to 10% or less were "The Amazing Race" and "NCIS" on CBS, "Castle," "The Middle" and "Grey's Anatomy" on ABC and "Family Guy" and "American Dad" on Fox.
The amount of DVR playback, meanwhile, continued to grow in the 2012-13 TV campaign. This season, 11 broadcast series gained at least 1.2 ratings points in adults 18-49 from same-day to Live+7 numbers -- up from nine last season and just five two years ago. The biggest gainers were "Modern Family" (2.2), "The Big Bang Theory" (1.9), "The Following" and "Revolution" (both 1.7) and "Grey's Anatomy" (1.6).
Similarly in total viewers, the number of shows gaining at least 3 million (13) is up sharply from last season's eight and just three for the 2010-11 TV year. "Modern Family and "Big Bang Theory" both packed on more than 4 million viewers in Live+7, while a trio of first-year dramas -- "The Following," "Revolution" and CBS' "Elementary" -- all grew by between 3.8 million and 4 million.
Here's a look at Nielsen's final 18-49 averages for all original, regularly scheduled series telecasts for the 2012-13 season (new shows in bold):
1) Sunday Night Football (NBC), 7.9
2) The Big Bang Theory (CBS), 7.2
3) Modern Family (ABC), 6.4
4) The Voice-Monday (NBC), 5.2
5) The Voice-Tuesday (NBC), 4.7
6) Grey's Anatomy (ABC), 4.7
6) Two and a Half Men (CBS), 4.7