TV Networks Ponder Fridays as Chance for Niche Shows

'Community,' 'Touch' Among Programs With High DVR Use

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Major TV networks are moving little-watched shows with signficant DVR audiences to Fridays, testing whether the technology can help programs like "Community" make it on a night with few viewers.

'Community' Credit: NBC
"Community," the half-hour NBC comedy with Joel McHale and Chevy Chase, shifts to Fridays in September. With the show ranked 141st in viewers and digital-video recorders boosting the audience by half, NBC has little to lose. Fox is moving Kiefer Sutherland's drama "Touch," and ABC is switching Tim Allen's "Last Man Standing."

Fridays offer networks a chance to turn the commercial-skipping DVR to their advantage. They get paid for ads that are viewed on DVRs, even partly, within three days of the airdate. A day later they get nothing. The idea with the schedule shift is that viewers, especially the younger ones marketers like, catch up on shows on the weekend, providing a ratings and revenue boost to shows that air Friday.

"The ratings may not look impressive Saturday morning, but those numbers just grow and grow and grow over the next several days," Kevin Reilly, entertainment president at News Corp.'s Fox network, said in an interview.

Studies indicate people replaying shows watch a majority of commercials, compared with live broadcasts when some viewers get a snack or flip channels, said Brian Hughes, senior VP-audience analysis at Interpublic Group of Cos.' MagnaGlobal. And most, 88%, watch within the 72-hour cutoff, he said.

"The networks are constantly trying to make Friday more visible, not just a dumping ground for shows in decline," Mr. Hughes said in an interview.

The Fox drama "Touch," featuring Mr. Sutherland as a father of an emotionally challenged son, is one example. Through late April, the show averaged 7.2 million viewers per episode, according to Nielsen data. When DVR viewing within seven days is counted, that figure jumped 42 percent to 10.3 million.

With spare time on the weekend, viewers have more opportunity to catch up on shows sooner, according to Greg DePalma, VP-audience Insights for TiVo, the company that pioneered the DVR.

"Shows like 'Friday Night Lights,' which had a cult following, get picked up over the weekend," Mr. DePalma said.

"Community," the quirky comedy about community-college students, attracted 2.75 million viewers a night this season through April, according to Nielsen data. Including DVR users, the figure jumped to 4.12 million.

The DVR remains a threat to TV networks. The devices let viewers record shows, watch them later and skip the commercials that give broadcasters most of their income. The pay-TV service Dish Network Corp. upped the ante this month, angering the networks when it began offering "Auto Hop," which automatically skips ads in shows subscribers have recorded.

Moving low-rated shows to Fridays, while not solving those problems, offers some advantages. It frees up more-valuable midweek slots for new programs or series with larger real-time audiences. Shows with large DVR viewership may have a higher chance of survival on Fridays, the night of the week with the second smallest prime-time audience after Saturday .

"Monday-night shows suffer for the same reason that Friday night shows gain from DVR viewing," Mr. DePalma said. "Anything you've recorded that 's older than three days won't be captured."

Of the shows with the highest DVR increases in percentage terms, two air on Fridays.

The audience for "Fringe" on Fox almost doubles to 4.26 million viewers when playback over seven days is added, making it No. 1 in DVR use, according to Nielsen data. The show, heading into its last season, is ranked 132nd overall. The audience for 85th ranked "Grimm" on Comcast Corp.'s NBC jumps about 67% to 6.47 million, Nielsen data show.

"These are shows with smaller but extremely loyal viewers, and that 's attractive," Hughes said.

At least two programs will make their debuts on Fridays when the new TV season starts in September: CBS Corp.'s drama "Made in Jersey" and the comedy "Malibu Country" on Walt Disney Co.'s ABC.

DVR use is climbing. In September 2007, 19% of U.S. homes with TVs had a recorder, according to a May 9 report from Horizon Media. By April 2012, 44 percent of the 114.7 million U.S. TV homes had the device. DVR use represents 8% of all TV watching today, compared with 1.6% in 2007, Horizon said.

The median age of people watching shows on DVRs is lower than the average audience watching shows live, providing more of the people marketers target , Horizon said. The median age of a DVR user is 42 compared with 48 for Fox, 52 for NBC, 53 for ABC and 57 for CBS, Horizon said.

Based on viewing data, advertisers worry more about new distractions, such as mobile phones and iPads.

"That's the bigger threat," Mr. Hughes said.

-- Bloomberg News

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