- The Washington Times - Monday, November 30, 2009

NEW YORK

Much of the prime-time audience lost to NBC when Jay Leno moved into prime time has gone not to its rivals but to the digital video recorder.

Rival network executives seemed almost giddy at the possibilities last spring after NBC announced Mr. Leno would do a comedy show five nights a week at 10 p.m. More viewers would be available “for people who put on great dramas,” said Leslie Moonves, CBS chief executive, “and that’s what we do.”

It hasn’t quite worked out that way.

NBC’s audience at that hour is down sharply, as many predicted. CBS is up 6 percent over last season, primarily because it moved the hit series “The Mentalist” into that slot; on three of the five nights, its audience is down. ABC also is down slightly at that hour, and it wasn’t exactly overwhelmed with hits last year, either.

With one-third of American TV households equipped with digital video recorders such as TiVo, the 10 p.m. hour is emerging as a popular time for people to catch up on what they missed earlier in the evening, or earlier in the week.

Here’s some math: NBC has lost an average of 1.8 household ratings points at the 10 p.m. hour compared to fall 2008, according to Nielsen Co. At the same time, DVR usage — which Nielsen also measures — is up by 1.4 points in that hour.

“The DVR phenomenon is a little bit higher than we thought,” said David Poltrack, CBS’ chief research executive.

For example, many people watch CBS’ “CSI: Crime Scene Investigation” on Thursdays at 9, tape ABC’s “Grey’s Anatomy” at the same time, then watch the medical soap an hour later, he said. They may tape “The Mentalist” (Thursday at 10) for later viewing. One casualty of growing DVR usage is that Friday night, when “Medium” and “Ugly Betty” are aired, is becoming a TV wasteland because so many people are catching up on programs they missed during the week.

DVR playback is important for programs but isn’t quite as valuable a commodity for the networks because viewers have the option to fast-forward through commercials.

“You’d rather have a live viewer than a playback viewer,” Mr. Poltrack said, “but you’d rather have a playback viewer than nothing at all.”

NBC will settle for any new viewers it can get for Mr. Leno. Here’s how rough the neighborhood is in prime time: Mr. Leno was the universally hailed king of late-night TV in the spring but has become a punching bag, even with about the same number of people watching him. The standards are higher earlier in the night.

Mr. Leno has been deluged with stories judging NBC’s grand experiment a failure and questioning when the network will pull the plug.

Some NBC affiliates are concerned that NBC’s 28 percent drop in viewership at 10 p.m. (through mid-November) is depressing the ratings for the local newscasts that follow Mr. Leno on the schedule and are key to those stations’ budgets. Robert S. Prather Jr., president of Gray Television, which owns 10 NBC stations, said in a call with analysts that the Leno experiment was a failure NBC isn’t ready to admit.

“They gambled,” said Marc Berman, analyst for Media Week Online. “This was the biggest risk I’ve ever seen a network take in television history. They gambled, and they lost.”

NBC has said publicly that it needs Mr. Leno to achieve a 1.5 audience rating among its target audience of 18-to-49-year-old viewers for the network to make a profit. During Mr. Leno’s first 40 shows, the ratings dipped below that number 10 times and equaled it five times.

Mr. Leno surprised many people in the industry by saying in a Broadcasting & Cable interview that he would have preferred to stay in his late-night “Tonight Show” slot, now occupied by Conan O’Brien. He also said he enjoyed being an underdog.

“Emotionally, I can take body shots all day long, and that doesn’t really bother me,” he told the magazine.

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