It's 10 p.m.: Do You Know Where Your Viewers Are?

Mario Perez/CBS
CBS' "Hawaii Five-O" is the top-rated 10 p.m. show in an era of lowered expectations.

Once the crown jewel of primetime TV, the 10 o’clock hour is in ratings freefall, a victim of cable, DVRs and changing viewer habits. Can it be saved? Should it?

Desperate times call for desperate measures. And 10 p.m. is indeed network television’s desperate time slot. Once the home of cutting-edge and highly rated dramas (NYPD Blue, ER, Boston Legal), the hour has been steadily bleeding buzz and viewers to cable and DVRs. The ratings drain is prompting executives to grapple with a perplexing dilemma: continue airing pricey dramas or fundamentally rethink programming — and ratings expectations — for 10 p.m.

In January, NBC, which tried and failed last season with Jay Leno at 10 p.m., will again take a bold step, moving comedies 30 Rock and Outsourced to 10 p.m. Thursdays. They will serve as counterprogramming, NBC executives hope, to CBS’ The Mentalist and ABC’s Private Practice. Additional 10 p.m. moves for midseason include Parenthood to Monday, Law & Order: Los Angeles to Tuesdays and Law & Order: SVU to Wednesdays, where it will face ABC’s medical drama Off the Map.

The 10 p.m. shuffle reflects the new reality: The competition isn’t what it used to be. Although CBS’ Mentalist has the biggest total audience of any 10 p.m. program, averaging 17 million viewers to date this season, it is down nearly 10 percent in the ad-centric adults 18-49 demographic. Meanwhile, The Good Wife is down 6 percent year-over-year, and ABC’s Private Practice has tumbled 14 percent. ABC’s Castle, buoyed by a strong season from lead-in Dancing With the Stars, is up 18 percent.

Network executives are facing a conundrum of diminishing returns on pricey dramas, which aren’t getting cheaper at $3 million an episode, while most are failing to burn up the Nielsen charts.

In 2005, 10 p.m. shows made up 33 percent of the primetime ad-revenue pie (excluding sports), according to data provided by Kantar Media. So far this year, those same shows account for 30 percent. And while broadcast networks have seen gradual erosion in adults 18-49 in general, consider that in 2007, when ER was on its way to the TV series graveyard, it still commanded $213,000 for a 30-second spot.

Today, advertisers can get a 30-second spot on Mentalist for a relatively modest $156,001, according to Ad Age, and ABC’s Private Practice goes for $142,661.

Although the 30 Rock shift wasn’t spurred by special market research, NBC executives point to its loyal, upscale audience and significant DVR bump as factors in the decision to have the Tina Fey/Lorne Michaels comedy anchor the 10 p.m. hour.


“Both Tina and Lorne and everyone associated with the show were supportive of the decision,” says Mitch Metcalf, NBC’s executive vp program scheduling. “I think everyone agrees that the loyal audience is going to follow [30 Rock to 10 p.m.]. The collective sense is that it provides a great opportunity for the show to really do a job for the network. I don’t think viewers become disinterested in comedy at 10 o’clock.”

Just Jay Leno’s brand of comedy, apparently. The move comes a little more than a year after NBC infamously tried but failed to reinvent the economics of primetime by programming a cheaper alternative (The Jay Leno Show) at 10 p.m. With dramas back, NBC has improved its average in the hour by 18 percent (Monday-Friday), while CBS is down 9 percent and ABC is down 11 percent. But the bar keeps getting lower.

As one network executive puts it: “We have to reconfigure the definition of success” at 10 p.m.

“I wouldn’t say 10 o’clock is like Saturday night,” adds Brad Adgate, senior vp research at Horizon Media. “But in a few years, who’s to say?”

The culprits are legion: DVRs, which are now in nearly 40 percent of all TV households; increased competition from cable, where 10 p.m. is a marquee time slot; a dizzying array of entertainment choices in general; and an increasing selection of products (Xbox, PlayStation 3) and subscription services (Hulu, Netflix) that allow consumers to stream content in their living rooms.

DVRs have unshackled viewers from the network-imposed TV grid. And while appointment television is not extinct (the NFL, Glee, Dancing With the Stars and, apparently, Jersey Shore), few 10 p.m. shows fit that rubric. In fact, only 27 percent of time-shifted 10 p.m. shows are played back the same day, according to a recent Nielsen study that looked at time-shifting during the course of a week. Compare that with 8 p.m. and 9 p.m. shows, which have a 53 percent and 42 percent same-day playback rate, respectively, and it points to a lack of urgency when it comes to 10 p.m. content.

But the DVR is only the tip of the technology iceberg. “The DVR was cited as the original threat to the 10 p.m. hour,” BTIG analyst Richard Greenfield says. “We’re at the early stages, but you’re seeing an explosion of content available on Internet-connected devices that are directly connected to a TV. When there’s that much content available at the click of a button, you get a dramatic increase in competition for people’s time.”

Networks, some analysts say, have reacted to that competition by affecting a defensive crouch creatively. “One problem is that the networks no longer use 10-11 p.m. to experiment with edgier programming,” says independent analyst Steve Sternberg, adding that there is too much genre similarity on the broadcast networks during the hour. Meanwhile, cable dramas are siphoning viewers not only with such prestige niche shows as Sons of Anarchy on FX and Mad Men and Breaking Bad on AMC but also with such broader-appeal dramas as USA Network’s Burn Notice and TNT’s The Closer.

CBS, the one network that is having across-the-board success at 10 p.m., winning the time slot each night of the week, offers an object lesson in asset building.

“You have to really put your best foot forward at 10 p.m.,” says Kelly Kahl, senior executive vp of CBS primetime. “You can’t phone it in. You’ve got to bring shows with strong appeal, shows that develop a strong audience base. It’s all prioritization. You’ve got to make your 10 o’clock shows somebody’s No. 1 choice.”

Two seasons ago, CBS moved Mentalist from 9 p.m. to 10. And if executives prepared themselves for a significant ratings hit for the Simon Baker-starring crime drama, it didn’t materialize — it’s still the season’s most-watched 10 p.m. show. The network improved its portfolio in the hour with successful launches last season of Good Wife, a smarter-than-average legal drama, and this season’s Hawaii Five-0; the top-rated 10 p.m. drama in the demo with a 4.0 rating.

Mentalist already has generated lucrative syndication deals for its studio, Warner Bros. And Hawaii and fellow freshman 10 p.m. dramas The Defenders and Blue Bloods, all from CBS Television Studios, each sold internationally for more than $2 million an episode. CBS executives expect these shows to continue to generate backend windfalls in domestic syndication and cable sales.

But for every Hawaii there are multiple 10 p.m. failures: ABC’s The Whole Truth and NBC’s Outlaw both were yanked after a handful of episodes; and ABC’s Detroit 1-8-7 and NBC’s Chase, though not officially canceled, are languishing in the ratings basement; and NBC’s The Apprentice hit a ratings nadir this season in its Thursday slot, tumbling to a 1.2 rating and a meager 3.5 million viewers.

Consider that during the 1995-96 season in the same Thursday slot, ER hit a ratings pinnacle, averaging a now-unheard-of 16.8 rating in the demo and 32 million total viewers. And though Apprentice always would be a lame contender against the likes of Mentalist and even Private Practice, it’s a measure of how much the medium has changed that about the only program that could hope to generate that kind of tune-in consistently is the NFL.

 ”I think CBS has shown a brand discipline,” Metcalf says. “But they also, like ABC, are down in the time period. It’s not that they’re immune to the competitive forces at work. No one has exactly the solution to the challenges.