Lighter programming, higher DVR use influence ratings

Fox and CBS are sizing up their ratings crowns as the 2009-10 season wraps tonight.

The year will be remembered for a slight shift in audience taste, as viewers flocked to event programming and new programs lighter in tone — and stopped watching several veteran series in droves.

No. 1 show “American Idol” may have lost a step but the singing competish, along with reliable vets like “House” and “Family Guy” and hot newbie “Glee,” kept Fox on top among adults under 50 for a sixth straight season.

SEASON LEADERS:

Show Network Rating(18-49)/Share
1.
American Idol
FOX 9.2/24
2.
American Idol
FOX 8.4/22
3.
Sunday Night Football
NBA 7.2/18
4.
Undercover Boss
CBS 6.2/15
5.
The Big Bang Theory
CBS 5.3/13
6.
Grey’s Anatomy
ABC 5.1/13
6.
Lost
ABC 5.1/12
8.
House
FOX 4.9/12
9.
Two and Half Men
CBS 4.8/11
10.
Desperate Housewives
CBS 4.8/11

And CBS, a solid second in 18-49, will tie Fox for the lead in adults 25-54 and win among total viewers for the seventh time in eight years. Eye benefited from hot Monday comedies “Big Bang Theory” and “Two and a Half Men,” a deep bench of crime dramas and a strong reality group — including new-on-the-job “Undercover Boss.”

ABC, meanwhile, slipped into a tie with NBC for third place among young adults, as the Alphabet — which scored with popular new comedy “Modern Family” — got no help from its rookie dramas at the same time that its core hourlongs declined.

And the Peacock, still looking for a breakout hit, struggled in the fall with its five-night “Jay Leno Show” but finished higher than it should have in the end, thanks to 17 nights of the Winter Olympics.

The Nielsen 18-49 averages, with a few nights to go, had Fox firmly in front (3.6 rating/10 share), followed by CBS (3.2/9), then ABC and NBC (both 2.7/7).

In adults 25-54, CBS and Fox tied for the lead (4.1/10), and ABC and NBC shared third place (3.2/8). The Eye lashed its rivals in total viewers (11.8 million to 9.9 million for Fox, 8.6 million for ABC and 8.2 million for NBC).

While the year’s network ratings leaders were nothing new, it was a season of change.

Aside from the “Leno Show” debacle, the two biggest stories of the TV season were the effect of increased DVR usage and a trend toward lighter programming.

More than one in three homes now possess the capability to timeshift via digital video recorder penetration grew to 36% this spring from 31% a year ago, according to Nielsen. This had an interesting effect on viewing, as auds were increasingly more inclined to watch scripted faves on their own timetables, while they seemed especially interested in gathering for must-watch-tonight event programming.

The Super Bowl drew a record 106.5 million on CBS in February, and other sports programming was on the rise, with NBC’s “Sunday Night Football” trailing only “American Idol” in the season’s 18-49 rankings. Also, kudocasts like the Academy Awards and Grammys rallied to some of their best scores in years.

TOP SHOW IN TOTAL VIEWERS:

Show Network Total Viewers
1. American Idol (Tues.) FOX 24.9
2. American Idol (Wed.) FOX 23.4
3. Dancing with the Stars ABC 19.7
4. NCIS CBS 18.8
4. Sunday Night Football NBC 18.8
6. Undercover Boss CBA 17.7
7. The Mentalist CBS 16.8
8. CSI CBS 15.8
9. NCIS: Los Angeles CBS 15.7
10. Dancing with the Stars (results show) ABC 15.0

On the programming side, it was a season where auds said good-bye to three serious dramas — “Lost,” “24″ and “Law & Order,” each oddly featuring leading characters named Jack — and hello to a lighter group of freshman faves.

New shows making the biggest impact were a single-camera, blended-family laffer (ABC’s “Modern Family”), a high-school musical comedy (Fox’s “Glee”) and an uplifting reality show (CBS’ “Undercover Boss”).

Overall, primetime television usage declined this season, by 3% in adults 18-49 and by 2% in total viewers, according to preliminary estimates through Sunday. The Big Four combined for an 18-49 rating/share of 12.2/33 (down 2% vs. last year) while basic cable dipped by 1% (17.8/49 to 18.0/48), Nielsen reported.

For Fox, “Idol” finished atop the season program rankers in both adults 18-49 and total viewers despite declining year-to-year by nearly 10% in both categories. Also, “House” remained in the top 10 during its sixth season, “Family Guy” remained a solid Sunday anchor, and “Glee” was the top new show in all young-adult categories.

Another highlight was “Bones,” whose steady perf on Thursday helped the net close the ratings gap on a night where it has long been an afterthought.

CBS claimed more winning time periods and top-25 programs in both 18-49 and 25-54 than its rivals, while dominating the rankers in total viewers.

Its “The Big Bang Theory,” headed for Thursdays in the fall, finishes as the season’s top scripted program in adults 18-49, while “Two and a Half Men” is TV’s No. 2 half-hour in demos and No. 1 in total viewers. And numerous crime dramas (including solid newbie “NCIS: Los Angeles”) ranked among the top 25 shows in demos, even if they no longer cluster at the top of the list. “NCIS” ends as the season’s most-watched scripted program overall.

The balanced Eye also excelled in the reality genre, with “Survivor” and “Amazing Race” winning their time periods nearly a decade after their launches, and “Undercover Boss” clocking in a Sunday winner after getting a substantial post-Super Bowl premiere boost.

The Eye also was the leader at 10 p.m. leading into the local news, taking advantage of weaknesses at both ABC and NBC.

ABC’s best news was the success of “Modern Family,” which defied lengthy odds by anchoring the net’s all-new four-comedy Wednesday block and peaked late in the season despite facing “Idol”; the Alphabet also added a couple of other decently performing comedies in “The Middle” and “Cougar Town.”

Net struggled with new dramas as modest performer “V” is the only one of six newcomers to be asked back next fall. However, mystery “Castle” was on the rise in its second year, boosting the net on Monday.

Among other returning hours, “Lost” went out a winner (and will be tough to replace) while “Grey’s Anatomy” and “Desperate Housewives” remained potent in their sixth seasons, and “Dancing With the Stars” continued to kick up its heels.

NBC’s average was propped up by sports (Olympics and “Sunday Night Football”), but the net still had some solid scripted performers like “The Office” and “Law & Order: SVU” and reliable reality warhorses “The Biggest Loser” and “Celebrity Apprentice.”

The end of “Jay Leno” opened up some 10 p.m. real estate midseason, and “Parenthood” emerged as a bright spot, winning its Tuesday hour in demos down the stretch.

CW added “The Vampire Diaries,” one of the season’s breakout hits, but still has a way to go as shows like “Gossip Girl” and “90210″ draw fewer than 2 million viewers on the night they air. Net, whose season averages were aided by the removal of its low-rated Sunday, finishes the season roughly flat in total viewers and up in demos.

Topping the week

For the final full week of the season, ABC finished on top thanks to the expanded finales of “Lost” (5.8/15 in 18-49, 13.57 million viewers overall) and “Grey’s Anatomy” (5.4/15, 15.24m) and winning perfs from “Dancing With the Stars” (4.1/11, 19.04m) and “Modern Family” (4.2/12, 10.14m). “Grey’s,” which dominated Thursday, shot up nearly 40% over the previous week, while Monday’s “Dancing” was the week’s most-watched telecast overall.

The Alphabet averaged a 2.9/9 in 18-49, followed by Fox (2.7/9), CBS (2.2/7) and NBC (1.9/6). ABC also won in adults 25-54 (3.6/10 to 3.1/9 for runner-up Fox) while CBS won in total viewers (9.9 million to 8.9 million for ABC).

One week from its finale, Fox’s “American Idol” topped the demo program rankings with its hours on Tuesday (6.7/19 in 18-49, 18.68m) and Wednesday (6.1/17, 19.00m).

NBC was paced by “Celebrity Apprentice” (3.4/9, 9.45m) and “The Office” (3.4/10, 6.64m); the former delivered its best demo score for any telecast since March 2009 and its largest overall audience since March 2008 — this despite facing both last week’s top scripted program in demos (“Lost”) and the frame’s top sports program (TNT’s coverage of the Lakers-Suns NBA playoff game on Sunday averaged a 3.6/10 in 18-49 and 8.46 million viewers).

CBS, whose “Survivor” and “Amazing Race” wrapped earlier this month, had a rather uneventful week although “The Big Bang Theory” shined on Monday (5.5/14, 15.02m).

In its finale on the Eye, Friday vet “Ghost Whisperer” led its hour although with uninspiring numbers (1.6/7, 6.83m).

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