DVRs squeeze TV’s late shift

New fall slate brings new offerings to 10 o'clock hour

We’re accustomed to being faced with either/or choices. Republican or Democrat. Paper or plastic. Angelina or Jen.

In television, however, don’t underestimate the impact of a ballot with an option for “both of the above” — and the difficulty that continues to augur for a still-endangered species, the 10 o’clock drama.

Out of curiosity, I asked one network research team to run numbers on overlapping viewership between ABC’s “Lost” and Fox’s “Glee,” which went head to head for the past six weeks Tuesdays at 9 p.m.

They were able to provide this data for the Fox show’s April 13 return: Nearly 10 million people watched “Lost” that night, 13.7 million tuned in “Glee,” and 1.2 million watched both.

Obviously, that’s not a staggering total, but it’s a significant one as we look toward the coming TV season, and perhaps particularly all the shiny new shows being asked to develop a following at 10 p.m. — nine of them in all — and on Friday nights.

Yes, NBC’s decision to move Jay Leno into that hour, beyond a desire to neatly resolve its latenight mess, amounted to throwing in the towel. NBC execs who championed the move overlooked the deflating effect the 10 p.m. Leno would have on affiliates, a decision that would come back to haunt them.

But the competitive scenario that inspired the maneuver — even with the networks buoyed by retransmission fees and the prospect of a healthier ad market — hasn’t evaporated simply because NBC retreated.

In explaining their fall schedules, all the networks discussed launching fresh programs behind established ones. Hence NBC’s decision to introduce four hours alongside a relative newborn, “Parenthood,” weeknights at 10.

Yet as network research folk acknowledge, time-shifted viewing of 9 p.m. programs makes life tougher than ever on new blood also competing with an influx of edgy cable dramas crowding the market, like “Southland,” which NBC punted to TNT.

All of this returns to a key question the Leno move raised — namely, how much do programmers want to spend to capture a 2 rating or so among adults age 18-49? And unless shows can improve on that performance — or possess some hidden power, like selling a million iTune downloads — not many of these hatchlings will survive in the wild long.

Although my promiscuous viewing habits are hardly ideal as anecdotal evidence, one example does have merit. On Thursdays, I remain loyal to NBC’S “The Office” and watch ABC’s “Grey’s Anatomy” while intermittently bitching about its endless contortions of workplace romance. Based on its upfront preview, I’m also intrigued by “Nikita,” a new action hour starring Maggie Q as a rogue assassin, slotted for 9 p.m. Thursday on CW.

As a consequence, with the main dual-tuner digital video recorder already literally clicking on both cylinders, weekly liaisons with Ms. Q (and my wife, he adds hastily) will have to occur in the bedroom, likely for viewing another day.

Permutations of DVR politics also pose issues for time-shifted shows, whose viability depends not merely on being watched but which ones are viewed most avidly — that is, who gets priority? Inasmuch as advertisers don’t relish paying for time in shows that sit around more than three days (rightly guessing the commercials are adroitly skipped), being first in the playlist queue carries its own rewards.

While DVR viewership remains relatively small, as a weekly update from ABC illustrates, it’s significant and growing. The first week in May, for example, the Alphabet web saw eight of its shows add at least 1.5 million viewers based on seven-day viewing, with the 18-49 rating for series like “Modern Family” and “Grey’s Anatomy” — as well as NBC’s “The Office,” Fox’s “House” and CBS’ “NCIS” — rising more than 30 percent.

By contrast, people are generally watching “American Idol” (which gained a mere 10%) and “Dancing With the Stars” (7%) as they happen — and doing less zapping as a result.

Moreover, TiVo announced a deal Tuesday to incorporate its pioneering (and for my money, still unmatched) interface technology directly into Insignia TV sets, allowing even gizmo-phobic consumers to receive its blessings — and bringing the on-demand, watch-when-you-want future another step closer.

For major networks gambling serious resources on 10 p.m., all that could add up to a series of long nights — though not, necessarily, in the way they intended.

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