Broadcasters defend their fall primetime turf

Cable targets key time slots

As cable makes bolder programming advances into the fall, broadcast networks inevitably are struggling to stem their viewership drain.

The first two weeks of the fall season put basic cable networks up 12% among adults 18-49 compared with last year, with pay cable growing 15%. By comparison, the major broadcast networks fell a combined average of 9%. Previous studies have a shown a great deal of broadcast erosion is because of mounting cable popularity, so there's obviously some ratings give and take this fall.

But cable might even be to blame for specific shows doing poorly.

TNT's legal drama "Raising the Bar," for example, has been boosting the cable network Mondays at 10 p.m. Meanwhile, such broadcast procedurals in the slot as "Boston Legal" and "Life" have shown year-over-year declines.

The same night, ESPN's "Monday Night Football" is repeatedly cited by broadcasters as a real threat to such male-skewing shows as Fox's "Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles" and NBC's "Heroes," both of which have suffered declines this year.

Sunday nights have likewise become awfully crowded, with Showtime's "Dexter," HBO's "Entourage" and AMC's "Mad Men" all airing at 10 p.m. Although none of these shows are big draws compared with broadcast fare, collectively they could make a dent. Broadcaster series in the slot -- ABC's "Brothers & Sisters" and CBS' "The Unit" -- are running slightly lower than last season, even as the premiere of "Dexter" set a record high for a Showtime scripted drama.

The solution to such scheduling conflicts is, of course, using a DVR. This fall DVR penetration has grown from 20% last year to 28% and preliminary numbers suggest audiences are using the record button more than ever. Although Live+7 data is only available for the weeks leading up to premiere week, such early starting Fox shows as "House" and "Terminator" are showing slightly more time-shifted viewing this season than last year.

Although broadcasters have long dreaded the advance of the DVR, with cable networks stacking choice time periods four or five scripted series deep, the device might be a salvation as audiences struggle to keep up with a burgeoning number of viewing choices.