Broadcast Erosion: Many Culprits, Few Solutions

This season's surprising dip in broadcast ratings has many analysts digging deeper into the reasons, exploring type of programming, DVR usage, the Internet and even the usual suspect, cable TV.

Live-only broadcast ratings are down anywhere from 11% to 15%--a steep fall off from the last three years, when broadcast viewership has been basically flat versus the seasons before.

Just a handful of network prime-time shows have seen ratings improvements over a year ago, such as "House" and "America's Funniest Videos." But the list is long on the other side of the ledger. Shows like "24," "Desperate Housewives,' "Lost," and "CSI" have taken sizable dips.

Previously in the 1990s, broadcast viewership regularly dipped 3% to 5% per season--with cable networks getting the benefit. Some analysts say the huge drop this year isn't all going to cable.

A big key in broadcast's drop could be DVR users, who now represent 14% of all U.S. TV households. Sources say that fully 40% of DVR users time-shift. That in itself could result in a 5% drop or more, according to one network executive. "That's huge," says one executive. "Among DVR users, the highest-rated TV show in every half hour in prime time is DVR playback. I'm shocked we are not down more."



As for Internet usage, networks said early on that online viewing didn't affect regular viewership of certain shows--meaning consumers weren't foregoing the traditional prime-time airing. However, if they are watching "Desperate Housewives" on their computers in prime time, "they are not watching something else on TV."

Still, programming on the networks' Internet sites has skyrocketed to some 250 shows versus a year ago, when only a handful could be viewed on computers.

Other executives complain about the high number of serial drama programs, which frequently take long multi-week breaks between original episodes. That makes viewers apathetic, pushing them to go elsewhere.

But DVRs and the Internet may not be the only reasons. Jack Wakshlag, chief research officer for Turner Broadcasting, says when looking at live-plus seven days of DVR viewership, cable is up 3% in ratings over a year ago. This compares to some lower broadcast erosion than just live-only numbers--8% for the six networks, 5% for the four networks.

If this season appears rougher for the broadcast networks, he says, it's because it comes after an Olympic year, which typically witnesses a big hit in ratings. Whatever the reasons, many media executives are still worried--mostly because broadcast erosion got such attention this year.

Former Carat USA research executive Rob Frydlewicz, who is president of RAF, says: "With college TV ratings, engagement and commercial ratings to consider, some of the day-to-day information is being ignored. I think it has a lot of do with staffing at the agencies. There is just a limited amount of work agencies can do."

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