Meanwhile, newer devices like high-definition TV sets and DVRs are boosting viewership, executives say. According to Nielsen, 54 percent of homes are now equipped with HDTV sets.
Adgate noted that the significant ratings increases this year for big-event programs like the major awards shows, the Super Bowl and the World Series, still mostly on broadcast, were due at least in part to the improved viewing experience of HD.
Nielsen tracking shows that sports generally get about 20 percent more viewing in HD households while awards shows get 13 percent more viewing.
Also, DVR playback is mostly for network programming, per the Nielsen numbers. The top 10 most-recorded shows on broadcast received a collective boost of more than 20 ratings points, while the top 10 cable shows received about nine additional playback ratings points.
The added viewing, of course, is good for all networks and it's also forcing a rethink of program development and scheduling models because viewers tolerate repeat programming less and less.
"That's why you're seeing recurring summer franchises like Big Brother and America's Got Talent," Poltrack said, "which are growing year to year." Cable kicks off many new shows each summer.
The not-so-good part about DVRs, now in 37 percent of homes, per Nielsen, is commercial skipping.
"It's positive for content, but less so for advertisers," said Don Seaman, vp, director of communications analysis at Havas' MPG. "The industry is adjusting, which is why we're seeing more integrations and sponsored content. But people will stop for a good ad and both networks and advertisers have to get more creative."