Patterns, measurements define 2006-07 season


Overview: Patterns, measurements define season
Ratings rerun: Fox, CBS on top
Thursday, Monday are battlegrounds
Chart: Final series ranks
Network news makes headlines

NEW YORK -- It has been a wild and in some cases wacky season for network TV, culminating in a hunt for millions of missing viewers that is so complicated that it's worthy of its own episode of "CSI."

On the surface, it is status quo -- CBS extended its winning streak in total viewers to five years, while "American Idol"-powered Fox bagged a third consecutive season victory among adults 18-49.
But underneath, a sea change has been brewing.

"I think we'll look back and see 2007 as the watershed when all the things we talked about -- viewing behavior and audience measurement of that behavior -- all came together to start the new era," NBC research chief Alan Wurtzel said. "We've talked a lot about change and everything, but this is the first year we've seen it in a profound way."

At the beginning of the season, Nielsen Media Research introduced "most current" ratings, cuming the audiences that watch a show live as well as those that record it on a DVR and watch it up to seven days later.

But even with those additional viewers counted this season, primetime television viewing dropped significantly compared with last season.

The steepest decline was in live viewership, which fell 10% year-over-year among the four major broadcast networks. Adding in DVR viewership, which can boost shows' ratings by as much as 25% or more, the Big Four were still down 5%.

Things turned for the worse in the spring when many of TV's best and brightest fell to season or even series lows. That list includes "Desperate Housewives," "Lost," "Grey's Anatomy," "CSI: Miami" and "ER," among others. Even "Idol" wasn't immune though it hasn't seen a year-over-year decline.

The reasons seem myriad. Explanations include poor comparisons with the Winter Olympics, which boosted viewership levels last year, the lack of stunt counter-programming, a three weeks' earlier start to daylight-saving time, an abnormally high amount of repeats in February and March and a shift in viewing behavior brought on by the DVR, streaming video and the growing number of ways network TV is consumed these days.

"It's never one thing," said Fox scheduling czar Preston Beckman, who acknowledged that the early start to daylight-saving time and the increase in DVR penetration has changed the game.

He thinks that the networks also have learned the hard way that viewers are annoyed by their favorite shows going on hiatus or repeating. It's something Fox took into consideration three years ago when it scheduled "24" straight through. Nielsen said that only 66% of program minutes in March were original compared with 80% a year ago.

Daylight-saving time generally shaves 3% or 4% off viewing, something the networks saw three weeks earlier this year. It particularly hit the 8-9 p.m. hour and such shows as NBC's "My Name Is Earl" and "The Office." But even when things started evening out, the ratings remained down.

"Probably the two had a compound effect and moved people away from their normal March viewing patterns into a lower general pattern of television viewing," CBS research chief David Poltrack said. "We haven't really recovered from that."

Mindshare research director Debbie Solomon thinks that the long hiatus periods and schedule shifts are coming back to haunt the networks and turn off viewers.

"They're not leaving the set, they're leaving the shows," Solomon said. "It's important to make that distinction. The networks have been playing so many games with scheduling and a lot of programs have gone on long hiatus periods and a lot of changed nights. ... I think viewers have given up trying to find their shows."

And unlike the past two years, when several shows debuted in the winter and spring -- "Office," "The Unit," "The New Adventures of Old Christine," "Deal or No Deal" and, of course, "Grey's Anatomy" -- this year fewer programs were introduced and only three, ABC's "October Road," Fox's "Are You Smarter Than a 5th Grader?" and CBS' "Rules of Engagement" stuck.

"And certainly you wouldn't put them in the same class as 'Grey's Anatomy' and 'Deal or No Deal' in terms of strength," Poltrack said. "This was a spring where the networks were not reinvigorated with new programming as in years past. Hence, more repeats. This led to some lowering of overall viewing levels."

Fox's Beckman doesn't think that the decline is as severe as it seems when just looking at live-plus-same day. It's a function of the fact that the average Nielsen home is three or four times more likely to be recording programming and playing it back later than it was a year ago.

"When you incorporate the live-plus-seven (ratings), you see that viewing isn't down as much as it appears to be," Beckman said. By that yardstick, such series as "24," "Lost" and "Idol" are flat or slightly up compared with a year ago.

NBC's Wurtzel doesn't think that there's a mass departure of network TV viewers. It's just that there are more choices and people are consuming media differently.

"It may well be that for a lot of people they don't feel the need to be there day-and-date for conventional television anymore," he said. "I do not believe that people aren't interested in television. That doesn't make any sense."

But Beckman believes that with the networks putting so many shows on so many platforms, it is leading to a growing perception that viewers don't have to watch it on network TV. The trick, he said, is whether the loss in potential advertising revenue is offset by the gains in the other ways the shows are being sold.

NBC is asking Nielsen to look into its measurement to make sure that there's nothing hinky there, like a few years ago when young male viewership dropped precipitously. Nielsen said it's looking into NBC's concerns and plans to report to its clients before the Memorial Day holiday.

"What we've found is that people aren't watching less TV this season, they're watching slightly less live television," a Nielsen spokesman said.

Wurtzel is more concerned about the changes in the HUT (households using television) and PUT (persons using television) levels, upon which the viewership and ratings are based.

"I would be surprised if there was a proverbial smoking gun. I think it's going to be a lot of different things," he said. "But I think we really have to understand what the Nielsen situation is, either to say we've got to deal with it or to say it's been taken off the list."              

Network season rankings
Network Total viewers (in millions) % change from 2005-06
CBS 12.5 -1%
FOX 10.4 +3%
ABC 9.9 -8%
NBC 8.9 -9%
CW 3.2 n/a
All data reflects "most current ratings"--live-plus-seven through availability and live-plus-same day for the final week of the season.

Adults 18-49
Network Total viewers (in millions) % change from 2005-06
FOX 4.0/11 -2%
CBS 3.7/10 -3%
ABC 3.5/10 -13%
NBC 3.1/8 -6%
Adults 18-34
CW 1.5/4 n/a
Source: Neilsen Media Research, Sept. 18-May 23.