ROUGHLY 18 MONTHS AGO, ABC Entertainment president Robert Iger got mugged by the press and his counterparts at the other networks for suggesting the networks may inevitably reduce the number of hours they program in prime time.

Iger reasoned that affiliate preemptions and low ratings would make it more cost-efficient to just give a few hours a week back to affiliates eventually, letting them worry about the costs and headaches associated with programming those nights.

Others, principally CBS Entertainment president Jeff Sagansky, ridiculed the notion, saying that by giving up nights the networks also were giving up inventory, as well as the opportunity to put on new hits. Critics also noted that once returned to affils, such time is virtually impossible to reclaim.

Yet while even Iger backed off a bit from his gloomy forecast, saying last season’s halt in declining network viewing gave him reason for greater optimism about network TV’s future, look what’s been quietly and graduallyhappening in daytime lately.

NBC, beset by low ratings and affiliate clearances, will return another half-hour of time to affiliates later this year, falling to four hours a day. The network has steadily been forced to give up time in the daypart, starting at 5 1/2 hours daily before dropping an hour last year.

ABC, with its third half-hour of “Home” reaching only about 50% of the United States, dropped it, decreasing its daytime lineup to 4 1/2 hours a day.

CBS, the leader in daytime for 190 consecutive weeks, gave in under low affiliate clearances and announced that it will follow suit and drop an hour from its daytime lineup next year, to 4 1/2 hours daily. In a not-entirely unrelated development, the Eye network, under affiliate pressure, also changed “CBS This Morning,” providing significantly more local time within the broadcast.

In short, the three webs will go from more than 16 hours each weekday, or 80 hours a week, to 13 hours, and 65 hours a week, by next summer at the latest–a decline of roughly 20% of their daytime program volume.

SO MUCH FOR GIVING UP INVENTORY. So much for launching the next generation of daytime hits. In prime time, that would be tantamount to each network dropping 4 1/2 hours of programming a week, based on the 22 they provide.

Granted, the dynamics of prime time and daytime are significantly different. Yet the fundamental concept of a network being forced into returning time to stations for sheer economic reasons is the same, and all three networks have succumbed to that pressure.

During a recent interview, Iger noted that there was another trend he considered scarier than a network giving up hours to stations–namely, the proliferation of infomercials, in which cable networks and local stations cede time directly to advertisers.

Essentially, he noted, the station is saying it wants money for the time, but neither the expense nor the responsibility for programming it.

Local stations have defended infomercials to critics by citing their economic benefits, as well as the fact that the juice-making, future-telling, real estate-selling half-hours go into low-profile time periods–late night, early in the morning, etc.–where a station can’t afford to spend significantly on programming anyway.

The networks may not have reached that level of desolation yet, but has anyone looked at the webs’ shares on Saturday night? Small wonder, then, that speculation persists about paring back networks, such as NBC brokering time to a supplier like Paramount. As with an infomercial, brokering time would assure a network some revenue without it having to produce programs or sell ads.

Throughout the political season, candidates, led by Ross Perot and his unprecedented media assault, overran the airwaves with their own infomercials, apparently with a salutary effect on network bottom lines. If you don’t have an answer for what to program, try the Ross Perot-John Hagelin hour.

While it may not be fashionable to talk about returning hours because it creates an image of the networks throwing in the towel, the lesson to be learned from daytime would seem to be as follows: Whenever someone in network TV vigorously says “Never” these days, take it as a firm “Maybe, but we sure hope not.”

BURYING THE DEAD: For those who may have missed it, last week’s Halloween episode of “The Simpsons” included a scene in which Bart and Lisa walked through a pet cemetery whose gravestones included the names “Fish Police,””Capitol Critters” and “Family Dog”–two failed and one twice-delayed animated series that have followed in theFox show’s footsteps.

The same episode included Bart chanting to raise the dead, invoking condom brand names like “Ramses” and “Trojan.”

Similarly, “Dinosaurs” featured a skewering of network television a few weeks ago, with its pandering to the simplest of tastes, as two harried ABC (Antediluvian Broadcasting Co.) executives–not to be confused with Stu Bloomberg and Ted Harbert–stumbled through the programming process.

Proof again that series that appeal to children can often be too good for kids, playing over their head to adults without alienating tots. It’s a strategy Disney’s animated features have pursued for years, though the chemistry is tricky. If you doubt it, check your local pet cemetery.

CHEAP SHOT AT THE BUZZER: Is there any truth to rumors that Magic Johnson and Ross Perot are forming their own political group, called “the In-and-Out Party?” Just wondering.

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