It's 10 O'Clock ... Do You Know What's on TV?

Viewpoint: Horizon Media's Brad Adgate on the Demise of Broadcast's Finest Hour

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Brad Adgate
Brad Adgate
TV trends and patterns continue to evolve. Not long ago, situation comedies dominated as the most-watched programs on TV. Each network had at least one night a week (and sometimes more) for a "made for TV movie," you could count on a blockbuster miniseries or two to air during sweeps, and you could watch a top-rated show on either a Friday or Saturday night.

Of course today, none of these facts are true. Another soon-to-be-fond network TV memory will be a top-rated and cutting edge drama running at 10 o'clock to anchor that evening's program lineup.

Between 1979 and 2009, many high-profile and critically acclaimed dramas could be counted on to run at 10 p.m. For 21 consecutive years beginning in 1979, the Emmy Award for best drama went to a program airing at 10 p.m. on one of the three networks. In the past decade, however, not one 10 p.m. program on broadcast TV was an Emmy winner. With "ER" and "Boston Legal" stopping production in 2009, it appears that, after three decades, the Golden Age of 10 p.m. dramas has, at last, come to an end on network TV.

A decade ago, 'ER' was the last top-rated show to air at 10 p.m.
A decade ago, 'ER' was the last top-rated show to air at 10 p.m. Credit: NBC
Since it fell outside of the so-called family hour, the broadcast networks could focus on more adult-themed content at 10 p.m. "Hill Street Blues" was noted for its grittiness in working in a seedy, inner-city police precinct. "Cagney & Lacey," another police drama, was critically acclaimed for depicting the difficulties women confronted in the workforce and their home life. "NYPD Blue" broke barriers for having partial nudity and using language not typically heard on broadcast.

The challenges and self indulgences of young adults were effectively chronicled with "Thirtysomething." The first bisexual TV character was depicted on "L.A. Law"; she also kissed a female colleague on the lips, another TV first. The prime-time soap opera "Dallas" introduced viewers to the season-ending cliffhanger with "Who Shot JR?" Throughout the summer of 1980, the nation was transfixed on who the would-be assassin was. The culprit was revealed in an episode watched by 83 million people (on a Friday night no less) at 10 p.m.

The last ratings titan at 10 p.m. was "ER," which after 15 years ceased production in 2009. A decade ago, it was the last top-rated show to air at 10 p.m. Other cutting-edge and acclaimed series that aired primarily at 10 p.m. in the 1980s and 1990s were: "Twin Peaks," "Miami Vice," "Northern Exposure," "Lou Grant," "China Beach," "St. Elsewhere," "Picket Fences" and "The Practice." These dramas could be found on any given night.

In recent years, however, while dramas (and reality shows) have dominated in ratings, these programs are airing earlier than 10 p.m. A large majority of the top-rated shows in 2008-2009 -- such as "American Idol," "Dancing with the Stars," "NCIS," "CSI," "60 Minutes," "Desperate Housewives," "Survivor," "Grey's Anatomy," "Criminal Minds" and "The Mentalist" -- all aired at either 8 p.m. or 9 p.m. Of the four 10 p.m. shows that cracked the top 20, only two, "CSI: Miami" and "CSI: NY," are returning, as "Without a Trace" and "Eleventh Hour" were canceled. Other critically acclaimed dramas such as "Lost," "House," "24," "Law & Order," "Fringe" and "Heroes" are now seen at an earlier time period.

Dollar sense
The difficulty in finding a hit program to run at 10 p.m. is compounded by rising production costs for a one-hour drama. The cost to produce a single episode of a one-hour drama on network TV is in the $2 million to $3 million range. This prompted NBC to air "The Jay Leno Show" weeknights at 10 p.m., a program that is notably less costly to produce.

While 10 p.m. has been slightly stronger this year with "The Mentalist" moving one hour later and "The Good Wife" starting out strong, there is another disturbing trend: The shows at 10 p.m. have a much older audience profile. Of the 19 programs that air at 10 p.m. this season, 17 of them have a median age above 50. Since advertisers pay a premium to reach younger viewers, advertising costs can be notably lower while production costs continue to rise.

Another reason for the loss in popularity of 10 p.m. has been the affect that time-shifting with DVRs has had. A report from Nielsen on how DVRs are changing the TV landscape found that 10 p.m. shows not only compete against each other but also programs that air earlier that evening and are played back at 10 p.m. The study found that, over the course of one week, 53% of 8 p.m. shows are played back in the same day, while just 42% of 9 p.m. shows and only 27% of 10 p.m. shows are played back in the same day. After three days, 89% of all 8 p.m. shows and 87% of 9 p.m. shows are played back, but only 82% of 10 p.m. shows are eventually watched. As TV moves to a more "on-demand" and "TV Everywhere" environment, 10 p.m. will be less and less important.

If one wants to watch cutting-edge dramas at 10 p.m. these days, you can always turn to cable. Cable has been very aggressive in producing breakthrough dramas scheduled for 10 p.m. AMC airs both its Emmy Award-winning dramas "Mad Men" and "Breaking Bad" at 10 p.m. FX airs many of its gritty and original programs at 10 p.m., such as "Damages," "Nip/Tuck," "It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia," "Rescue Me" and "Sons of Anarchy." Previously, FX had aired its cutting-edge police drama "The Shield" at 10 p.m.

Cable's top-rated network USA has also used 10 p.m. to run some of cable's highest-rated shows "Psych," "Royal Pains" and "In Plain Sight." TNT has also used 10 p.m. for "Raising the Bar," "Dark Blue" and "Leverage." Lifetime's top-rated original series "Army Wives" is seen at 10 p.m.

Bigger talent
Moreover, many cable originals have been able to cast familiar actors for their series. Because less episodes are produced each year, cast members are able to work on other projects such as movies and plays. Also, the chances of getting canceled mid-season are remote, allowing the actors to avoid the indignity of getting axed mid-year. On the other hand, many cable dramas at 10 p.m. suffer from the same older audience profile that the broadcasters at 10 p.m. face.

The 10 p.m. time period on cable is not just limited to provocative dramas but also includes other formats. At 10 p.m., viewers can watch reality shows like "Project Runway" on Lifetime, "Real Housewives" on Bravo or "Real World" on MTV. Even the popular and risqué "South Park" on Comedy Central is on at 10 p.m.

Much of TV's shock value has migrated to pay cable, which is unconcerned with either FCC regulators or advertisers. In the past decade, both HBO and Showtime have produced original (and award-winning) series that have become ingrained in pop culture. Although they may not all air at 10 p.m., their content and language has pushed the envelope even further than any broadcast TV show can.

With the networks becoming more timid at 10 p.m. (perhaps in response to the FCC crackdown stemming from the Super Bowl "wardrobe malfunction"), coupled with the continued aggressiveness of cable networks, perhaps Fox had the right idea all along when it first rolled out its prime time schedule 20 years ago. The most-watched network among adults 18-49 for the past few seasons has never programmed at 10 p.m., opting to give the last hour of prime time to its affiliates. Based upon current trends, can the three other networks be far behind?

Brad Adgate is senior VP-research for Horizon Media.
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