Ratings dip jolts ad buyers

Networks blame sunlight

As they head into upfront sales talks with advertisers, the networks are faced with a terrifying ratings picture.

This spring, viewership is down — 5% alone in the first three weeks of daylight saving time. The drop has hit every daypart except latenight, and even top shows like “American Idol,” “Desperate Housewives” and “CSI” are not immune.

And since a weak spring can portend a disappointing fall, network execs hope the dip is an aberration and not something permanent. Regardless, it’s destined to further complicate the upfront negotiations, already hamstrung by the transition to commercial ratings and the dispute over delayed viewing on DVRs.

“It concerns me because I’m looking for shows that reach a lot of people in a short amount of time and in an impactful way,” says Andy Donchin, director of broadcast negotiations at media buying firm Carat USA. “We need the big reach vehicles.”

The networks blame not the shows, but the sunlight. This year’s extended daylight saving time — which has traditionally hurt viewership — has taken its toll on TV watching. Especially hard hit are evening newscasts, which start at 5:30 p.m. in parts of the country. CBS’ “Evening News” drew its smallest audience in at least 20 years, while ABC and NBC had historic lows in the targeted 25-54 demo.

As they head into upfront negotiations with advertisers, the nets are arming themselves with a number of explanations — even the hope that the swoon could strengthen their case when it comes to being compensated for DVR-recorded viewing.

“In DVR homes, more people watch in playback mode than they do live, and we’re not getting credit for that,” CBS research chief David Poltrack says.

The networks argue that factoring in viewing that occurs within the first week — what Nielsen calls “Live plus seven” — the spring ratings picture is far less bleak.

The three additional weeks of sunlight hit while the networks were airing an unusually large number of repeats, especially compared with last season — when they banked original episodes for the spring and slotted repeats in February opposite the Olympics on NBC.

CBS, for example, had 36% of its schedule in repeats in the spring, vs. 19% a year ago.

“There was no question that in March and April, there were too many reruns,” says CBS Corp. topper Leslie Moonves.

NBC ordered extra episodes of “The Office” and “Heroes” in part to keep the shows in originals next spring.

Pushing the clocks forward may have increased DVR usage as well, adding pressure on the nets to get some credit from Madison Avenue for delayed viewing of commercials.

ABC attempted to force the issue last year, but had to concede after the other networks started writing business on “live-only” ratings. The latter counts viewers watching a show at the same time it is telecast.

But this year, CBS, ABC and NBC have scheduled the most-recorded shows on television in the same time period on Thursdays, in “Grey’s Anatomy,” “CSI” and “The Office.” Poltrack estimates 5 million viewers per week watch those shows in DVR playback mode.

But the networks have some tough negotiating ahead of them in a year when advertisers are very much in the drivers’ seat.

Campbell Mithun broadcast buyer John Rash isn’t convinced the numbers don’t reflect a larger cultural trend.

“What needs to be discussed is if this is a spring swoon or a larger fundamental shift that has reduced the supply of viewers,” he says.

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