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Prime Time Ghost Town

Big Three draw record low ratings at 10 p.m.

Illustration: Brian Taylor

It’s 10 p.m. … Do you know where your viewers are? If you program a broadcast television network, there’s a good chance they’ve either flipped to a cable channel or are firing up the DVR.

According to Nielsen live-plus-same-day data, the Big Three this fall are drawing historic low ratings in the 10 p.m. time slot, and those who are tuning in are older than ever. Season to date (Sept. 23-Oct. 22), the last hour of prime time is averaging 7.98 million viewers and a 1.9 rating in the adults 18-49 demo. That represents a 5 percent decline versus the year-ago period (2.0) and a 21 percent drop when compared to the aggregate prime-time average (2.4) at ABC, CBS and NBC.

While the networks are nimbly hustling their live-plus-seven results—ABC’s Nashville in Week 2 boosted its demo delivery 68 percent upon application of a week of DVR viewing, growing from a 1.9 to a 3.2—the currency data suggests that those who are catching up via time shifting aren’t watching the ads. Per the C3 stream (i.e., the numbers against which ratings guarantees are made), Nashville improved just two-tenths of a point to a 2.1.

The same applies to the rest of the 10 p.m. shows. But for outliers like CBS’ Hostages and Elementary, which grew three-tenths of a ratings point, the hour’s average C3 boost was a mere tenth.

Compounding the networks’ woes is a rapidly aging audience. In the last month, the median age of the 10 p.m. network TV viewer was a practically ossified 56.4 years—well beyond the outer limits of the most senior guaranteed demo and two years older than the overall prime-time average (54.3 years).

Although there are any number of hypotheses to explain why 10 p.m. has become a ghost town, a unified theory has yet to be advanced. But most insiders believe that the new ruling class of 55 million amateur schedulers (aka, DVR users) are using the hour to catch up on the shows they recorded earlier in the night/week.

“We call it the ‘DVR Channel’ because it’s become the No. 1 network at 10 o’clock, and by a wide margin,” said one TV buyer. “Viewers are playing catch-up, and it’s eroding the live ratings.”

While live viewership accounts for 81 percent of all TV consumption, broadcast shows are disproportionately time shifted. Only 56 percent of network prime is watched live, versus cable’s 76 percent.

“Look, this is probably self-serving, but there’s no urgency to watch any of these network shows live,” said one cable exec. “You record their stuff while you’re watching our shows.”

True enough. At present, three 10 p.m. cable series (AMC’s Talking Dead; FX’s Sons of Anarchy and American Horror Story) are outdelivering their scripted broadcast competition.

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