MINNEAPOLIS (AdAge.com) -- Risk-taking from the networks paid off last year: Last September's schedule was packed with single-camera comedies and serial dramas inspired by Emmy winners such as NBC's "The Office" and Fox's "24." This finally should have lain to waste the famous phrase of former FCC Commissioner and scold Newton Minow that TV a "vast wasteland."
But lately it's a different kind of "Wasteland" that comes to mind: the first line of T.S. Eliot's epic poem, which states that "April is the cruelest month." At least it has been for network TV, because despite the creative breakthroughs, commercially, prime time is in a springtime slump.
78% of shows slumped
Ninety-eight programs ran from last Friday through last night, and 76 (78%) performed below season-to-date averages in the ad-centric demographic of adults 18-49.
Program hiatuses are just one of the many reasons for the ratings erosion, as a show's momentum is often lost when it take a long break. This is particularly acute for serialized dramas, such as two in the top 10 this week: NBC's "Heroes" and ABC's "Lost."
"Save the cheerleader, save the world" was the mantra for the breakout NBC hit, but it could just as well have been "Save the cheerleader, save the network," as the "Heroes" hype is exactly what the Peacock needs to build upon. But an unusually long time between new episodes resulted in this week's return delivering a 4.6/12 -- good enough to be ranked ninth, but down 17% from season-to-date levels. ABC's "Lost," which had its own downtime earlier this season, also lost 15% of its demo delivery, but its 4.5/12 was still good enough to tie for 10th place.
The difficulty in sustaining serials is one of the reasons why March's program development meetings were nearly devoid of the subgenre; meanwhile, the four episodic dramas in the top 10 this week were the only shows that were up over season averages. One such drama is Fox's "House," which finished in fourth place with a 7.8/20 (it never hurts to have an "American Idol" lead-in).
Repeats ran rampant
Repeats have also run rampant these last two months between the February and May sweeps. ABC has held off on new episodes of "Desperate Housewives" by running reruns and clip shows, which have hurt overall ratings, not to mention Sunday's episode, which was down 12% with a 5.5/13. CBS's "CSI: Miami" has also used significant repeats, not only during its regular time slot but also to shore up the network's schedule as well. This week's 5.0/14 was good for seventh, but off 2% from regular levels.
Of course, reality TV neither repeats nor goes on hiatus, one of the genre's many merits that make it so attractive to the networks. But even the week's top two shows -- Fox's "American Idol" Wednesday (9.4/25) and Tuesday (9.1/27) editions -– were down double digits from season averages, and ABC's "Dancing with the Stars" (eighth with a 4.7/13) also lost a step, dipping 10% in the demo.
Part of this springtime swoon has been attributed to lower adult 18-49 "persons using TV" (PUT) levels due to the earlier advent of Daylight Savings Time. But an analysis of monthly PUT levels dating back to October -- the first full month of the new season -- indicates the lower levels are not a recent phenomenon.
Comparisons for seven nights over seven months between 2005-2006 and 2006-2007 shows only three times when PUTS increased (Saturdays in December and January, most likely due to the NFL playoffs as well as a 2% rise on Monday nights in January) and only three times when PUT levels indexed even. The other 41 (83%) of the comparisons were down from 1% to 9%, suggesting that today's multitasking, multimedia environment is perhaps pulling people away from the small screen to ones even smaller, including laptops and iPods.
To be sure -- and to be fair -- some of lower ratings can be explained by Nielsen's live vs. live-plus-same-day measurements, as the increasing usage of digital video recorders (DVRs) allows viewers to negotiate the media menu on their terms (and will be the subject of negotiations in the upcoming upfront). Several of the top 10 are among the most time-shifted shows, as the networks have been inspired to inspire loyalty to shows in an ever more crowded media landscape.
And, indeed, what's most remarkable about the ratings is actually how high they still can be, given that option of explosions that would have been the stuff of science fiction just a generation ago.
So, hope springs eternal, despite the clouds that have hovered over network TV. The calendar may still say April, but May sweeps began last night, with the promise of rising ratings from fresh episodes and season (or series) finales. And, indeed, three top shows bucked the trend, as perhaps viewers trained to pay attention each quarter did, just at the right time for the networks. If there are 17% more viewers around the water cooler this morning, it's because ABC's "Grey's Anatomy" was up that amount with a third place 8.2/21. And CBS's "CSI" (5.8/15) and "Survivor" (4.5/13) not only survived, but thrived, landing in fifth and a 10th-place tie, respectively (all based on Nielsen "Fast Affiliate Ratings" -- final numbers subject to change).
And the vernal skies may get sunnier still, as that most important springtime ritual -- the upfront presentations -- take place mid-month, which will once again give the networks an annual autumnal chance to prove T. S. Eliot -- and Newton Minow -- wrong.
~ ~ ~
NOTE: A share is a percentage of TV households that have their TV sets on at a given time. A rating is a percentage of all TV households, whether or not their sets are turned on. For example, a 1.0 rating is 1% of the total U.S. households with a TV. Ad deals are usually negotiated on the basis of live-viewing figures, though Nielsen Media Research and the broadcast networks release viewership statistics that include live-plus-same-day playback on digital video recorders. All the ratings listed here are live.
John Rash is senior VP-director of broadcast negotiations for Campbell Mithun, Minneapolis. For daily rating updates, see rashreport.com.