It's 10 p.m., and the networks don't know where their viewers are.
For decades, the late-evening time slot was one of the prime spots for top network shows, from '70s cop dramas like "Starsky and Hutch" to '80s-era soaps such as "Dynasty" and right through more recent hits like "ER" and "Law & Order."
But now the bottom is falling out of ratings for that time slot -- and one of the prime culprits is the DVR.
Broadcasters have had trouble coaxing audiences back to all of their shows since the three-month writers strike ended last season, but nowhere have the troubles been more acute this fall than at 10 p.m., with disappointing ratings for such dramas as ABC's "Dirty Sexy Money" and "Life on Mars," CBS' "Without a Trace" and NBC's "Lipstick Jungle" and the new Christian Slater caper, "My Own Worst Enemy."
For a time period that used to be a drama showcase, this is quite a comedown. It's a problem of great concern to broadcasters and advertisers alike, because the 10 p.m. shows play a key role in funneling viewers to local newscasts -- where stations make most of their money -- and lucrative late-night programming. Viewers are likely to see an impact too, because programmers will think twice before putting high-cost dramas in a slot where they don't perform.
In recent years many of the big matchups, such as "CSI: Crime Scene Investigation" vs. "Grey's Anatomy," have shifted to earlier in the evening. "It's come back to 9 o'clock now," said Kelly Kahl, senior executive vice president for CBS prime time, No. 1 in the ratings. "Ten o'clock used to be the great faceoff hour."
Executives offer several theories to explain the viewer flight from 10 p.m. The most intriguing involves a device whose impact on viewing wasn't even officially measured until a couple of years ago: the DVR.
Research shows that viewers with DVRs tend to watch more TV than people without the devices and also that they use them more as the evening progresses. So, the thinking goes, by the time 10 p.m. rolls around, many DVR users are catching up on shows they recorded earlier in the evening and skipping altogether the dramas that are scheduled by the networks for that hour.
If someone is busy watching a time-shifted episode of, say, "Ugly Betty" or "The Office," he or she may not bother to watch ABC's new cop drama "Life on Mars," either live or on delay.
Each of us, after all, has only so much time to watch television (although, according to Nielsen Media Research, each viewer's time spent watching prime time has remained virtually unchanged for the last few seasons, averaging approximately 13 1/2 hours per week).
"A large chunk of viewers are delaying viewing shows on any given night until later in the evening," said Preston Beckman, the scheduling chief for Fox, which turns its air over to affiliates at 10 p.m. and does not program at the network level during that time period.
In fact, DVRs are changing assumptions about TV viewing habits in ways that executives are only beginning to understand. Beckman noted that Nielsen did not even begin counting DVR viewing until 2006. Now, 27% of Nielsen's 16,000-home national sample comprises homes with DVRs, up from 20% this time last year.
Some of the latest research seems to bear out the notion that time-shifted viewing may be clobbering 10 p.m. shows. In the majority of homes that still don't have a DVR, viewing from the 9 to 10 p.m. hour drops 10% among the key demographic of adults 18 to 49, according to Nielsen. But among DVR homes, the corresponding drop is 20%.
That doesn't necessarily mean that the people who tune out live television are instead using their DVRs. But the conclusion seems inescapable: Once your household gets a DVR, you're a lot less likely to watch a 10 p.m. show.
In an environment where fractions of ratings points can mean the difference between success and failure, DVRs have thrown a new wrinkle into the equation.
These statistics, however, need to be tempered a bit. As much as industry execs and analysts talk about it, time-shifting still makes up a tiny slice of all TV viewing. For the first two weeks of the season, for example, 94% of viewers watched shows in the 10 p.m. slot the old-fashioned way -- that is, live as they aired, according to Nielsen.
"I think it explains part of it; it doesn't explain all of it," Shari Anne Brill, a programming analyst for ad firm Carat, said, referring to DVRs' impact on viewer erosion at 10 p.m.
Cable networks have grown much more aggressive over the last few seasons about putting their strongest series at 10 p.m. This fall, viewers have been able to choose among new episodes of MTV's "The Hills," FX's "The Shield," Bravo's "Top Design" and many others.
Turmoil at 10
Against that background, the networks may not have done themselves any favors with some of the recent broadcast matchups at 10 p.m., in which two similar shows look to be cannibalizing each other's natural audience base.