Monday, April 29, 2013

Solving the 10:00 Hour

The question we all ask at some point about the big picture of TV ratings: how much of Live+SD ratings decline is due to network stupidity, and how much is bound to happen because of a changing environment? I like to call this "debate" Incompetence vs. Inevitability.

Earlier in the season I looked at what I would call about as good an example as there is of Incompetence: the Tuesday night problem. There doesn't seem to be any real environmental reason why the networks should be so weak on Tuesday compared to other nights. It seems like the best answer is that the programming is simply not good enough. I've also looked at a what I consider a strong example of Inevitability: rerun programming. In a world filled with on-demand options, watching reruns on a linear schedule is much less appealing, and there's not really anything the networks can do about that.

But today we're looking at a more complicated example: the 10:00 hour. As with Tuesday and reruns, there's been a significant depreciation of the ratings in this space in recent years. Not just comparing raw numbers across seasons, but comparing the relationship between 10:00 ratings and 8:00/9:00 ratings. Unlike with Tuesday, though, there are some pretty good reasons. Today we're going to discuss the Incompetence vs. Inevitability in the 10:00 depreciation. And while it may not truly be "solvable" as the headline promises, I will lay out a couple ways that I think the networks can handle the hour better.

The 10:00 Damage

There have always been two pieces of "competition" in the 10:00 hour that we can't really quantify with hard numbers: 1) local newscasts on Fox (you might assume from just looking at national ratings that the big three face "no competition" from Fox, but these get good numbers); and 2) "going to bed."

Beyond those, two other important ones have picked up steam in recent years: cable originals and the DVR. And the DVR's impact can be broken in two. First, it makes it easier to go to bed and watch a 10:00 program later (probably skipping commercials). This is evident in looking at Live + 7 charts, where many 10:00 programs rank among the highest percent gainers. And second, the 10:00 hour takes place after two other hours of primetime programming, which may have put some other stuff on the DVR. So the 10:00 hour in a sense has to compete with the earlier programs too, and 10:00 shows don't have the benefit of additional primetime hours to watch within the same day window.

All of this has surely played at least some role in a significant depreciation of 10:00 ratings. Here's how originals in the 10:00 half-hour have developed over the last ten years, comparing vs. the "league average" of 100 each year:

2003-04 104
2004-05 107
2005-06 105
2006-07 95
2007-08 87
2008-09 89
2009-10 83
2010-11 85
2011-12 86
2012-13 83

The 10:00 originals have pretty steadily declined over the last ten years, from above league average in the first three years all the way down to just over 80% of the league average this year. (It's a little smoother if you remember that the writer's strike hurt this hour in 2007-08, while the oddly low 2009-10 season had 90 in-season hours of The Jay Leno Show at 10/9c, which averaged a mere 55 A18-49+.) The trend is clear; but how much of it is Incompetence and how much is Inevitability? I don't have an easy answer, but I do have some things to consider:

The "Ceiling" Has Shrunk Even Faster. While the average 10:00 original has dropped by about 20% from 2003-04 to 2012-13 (relative to all originals), the top 10:00 originals are down by around half. In 2003-04, ER (250) was comfortably a megahit, while the top 10:00 shows today are right around the 125 hit line; that's where Revolution (134) should end up, and it's where Scandal (113) would be just taking its 2013 performances.

So are the Revolution and Scandal ratings really the so-called "ceiling" for broadcast at 10:00? Probably not. The large sample size in the average drop is more indicative of the "true" depreciation of the hour than the top shows alone, meaning broadcast probably could still hang something around 20% below ER (a borderline megahit, 200, or about a 4.2 demo average) if they really wanted to. It's probably not that far from where The Big Bang Theory or The Voice would be if skedded there.

But do they really want to? For all the talk about making affiliates happy, nothing really gets scheduled like ER or the CSI spin-offs anymore. 10:00 breakouts like Grey's Anatomy have been moved to 9:00 and used to lead into other primetime programs. 10:00 is now the land of the good-not-great, and that's likely a largely conscious decision by the networks.

Rise of Fox/Sitcom Strength. Another reason for the 10:00 decline may be that the hour is disenfranchised from two of the things trending up over the last decade: the Fox network, which doesn't nationally program 10:00, and sitcoms, which almost always stay out of the hour on broadcast. The 10:00 hour was much better suited for the very big three drama-favorable environment of the mid-aughts. (Though the flip side of that argument is that 10:00 has not really recovered as Fox has collapsed in the last couple years...)

Cable Can Still Pop a Number. Those much more into psychoanalysis than me say things like, "People have become conditioned to flip to cable at 10:00!" I don't personally believe anybody really thinks like that. People just flip to things that they like watching, and there's a better chance cable will provide that at 10.

Is it bad news for broadcast that cable has now owned the top 10:00 entertainment program on TV on two occasions, first with Jersey Shore and now with Duck Dynasty? I suppose. But there is a sunnier way to look at those shows: those ratings are at least still possible. While cable may have some content restriction advantages, I still don't believe the ceiling is higher on cable, in any environment. So the fact that someone is hitting these kinds of numbers suggests to me the hour is not as inherently disadvantaged as some people think. Compare it to an environment like Friday, where nobody has proven capable of legitimate hit-type numbers, and 10:00 still looks pretty workable.

Two 10:00 Ideas

So my conclusion is a good old fashioned hedge of my bets: there's some Incompetence and some Inevitability. And a lot of the so-called "Incompetence" may be intentional. While I don't think there are any ERs being robbed of multiple ratings points just because they're at 10:00, it does seem unlikely we'll return to a world in which the 10:00 hour is substantially outrating the 8:00 hour. But even if there's some Incompetence, that means something can be done about it. In the Tuesday post I suggested lineups, but my ideas for 10:00 are more philosophical, more macro.

1. 9:00 to 11:00 Reality Shows

I've discussed all the different styles of competition that a 10:00 show has to face: DVRed stuff, local newscasts, cable originals and "going to bed." I have to believe that all of this makes it at least a little bit tougher to get people to start at show at 10:00 than to start a show at 9:00 or 8:00.

But it's possible to get people to watch something in the 10:00 hour without having to capture their attention at 10:00. How? A two-hour block, starting at 9/8c. I'd like to see more reality shows move to the Celebrity Apprentice model. In the celebrity era, Apprentice never set the world on fire at 9:00 (and it's pretty much a flop by 9:00 standards these days), but it becomes much more valuable when that audience sticks around or even grows in the 10:00 hour. Those ratings actually compare pretty favorably with other network offerings at 10:00. Early in Celebrity Apprentice's Sunday run, it was one of the strongest 10:00 shows on TV.

I'm not talking about The Voice here. It's obviously so high-rated that there's great value in using it to lead into another primetime program. But the decent-rated shows that aren't so big that they need to be "launching" something should all at least consider this. The Biggest Loser? Dancing with the Stars? There's such a small sample size of eligible programs that this won't exactly save the world, but it's something to consider going forward. I didn't mind the idea at all for Ready for Love... too bad it was a total non-starter conceptually.

And if you're not buying this "tougher to get people to start a show at 10:00" business, I'll just note that the two lowest rated Celebrity Apprentice episodes this season were one-hour, 10:00-starting episodes. Coincidence?!?! (Maybe.)

2. More Vets and Fewer Newbies at 10:00

My other beef with network 10:00 scheduling is the abundance of new shows. For the most part, it hasn't gone well in the hour recently. Nearly all the success in the strong new class of 2011-12 came in the first two hours (even among dramas, with Once Upon a Time, Person of Interest and Grimm), and the weak new class of 2012-13 has been filled with underwhelming 10/9c performers, from surprise duds like Vegas and 666 Park Ave to supposedly sure things that turned out "meh" like Elementary and Nashville. It may not be a coincidence. You're asking new shows to compete with cable, the DVR and "going to bed" when 10:00 arrives, and these shows don't have any track record to draw on. A big chunk of the problem may be that there's an even larger inherent 10:00 disadvantage for a new program seeking to build something in the face of all the choices when the clock strikes ten.

Certainly there are "good" 10:00 slots; if you have a lead-in the size of The Voice or Grey's Anatomy or in-its-prime CSI, by all means go new. That lead-in will help to offset some of the disadvantages. But the "model" 10:00 show is not a new show. Generally speaking, the networks should increasingly look toward the more fruitful 9:00 hour (maybe even the 8:00 hour) for new shows.

As for the 10:00 hour, it's better suited for second-tier veterans whose ratings aren't so compelling that a large opportunity to "launch" something is missed. One of the great success stories of the 10:00 hour in recent years was the move of the mothership CSI to the hour in 2011-12. The show was struggling in its historic Thursday 9/8c slot in early 2011, sometimes even dropping into fourth place, but it's transitioned into a dominant-for-10:00 role in the last couple years. (Many fans would probably credit creative changes over scheduling prowess, though.)

So what are some examples of second-tier shows currently in the early evening that might help stabilize 10:00? I've got one for each network: Revenge (ABC), NCIS: Los Angeles (CBS) and Law and Order: SVU (NBC). None of these are pulling particularly launchpad-worthy numbers for their networks but should be able to improve upon weak newbie numbers in some 10:00 slot.

My ideal primetime schedule would be: "launch"-worthy show at 8:00, new show at 9:00, reliably decent-rated veteran at 10:00. It's not always easy to pull this off in practice because there are many other considerations, but I think it's a good model to give new shows the best chance. Here are a few examples:

NCIS (8:00) / new The Mentalist (9:00) / Without a Trace (10:00) in 2008-09
Comedy hour (8:00) / new Person of Interest (9:00) / The Mentalist (10:00) in 2011-12
The Voice (8:00) / new Go On / The New Normal (9:00) / Parenthood (10:00) in 2012-13

Yeah, those NBC comedies this year turned out to be incredibly fraudulent, but the way they were hammocked between a launch-pad and a reliable 10:00 show helped them to appear less fraudulent than they were for much of the fall. And the other two are headed for lengthy runs.


Spot said...

This raises the question of what to do with the few "new" 10:00 shows that are working for their networks: Scandal, Revolution, and Chicago Fire. All three are young shows that could take a step up if they bumped into a higher HUT hour (until event season took its bite, Revenge's second season at least
reversed the mild decline from the tail end of season one and kept ABC
on the Sunday map), but do help to stabilize 10:00. Should Scandal and Grey's Anatomy swap time slots to help grow the younger show while stabilizing the veteran? Does Chicago Fire make a move to 8:00 on Wednesdays to fix NBC's weakness in the earlier hour? And then there's Revolution which has started to sag since returning from its hiatus: will NBC keep the pairing like ABC did with Dancing with the Stars & Castle?

I figure these may be questions that you're probably addressing with your Upfront posts coming, but these were my immediate thoughts.

Spot said...

On a flip side, DVR penetration helps the C3 ratings of 10PM shows. As You said, those "rank among the highest percent gainers in Live+7." Same applies for few available Live+3 ratings data, so there's no doubt it's true for C3 too.

Point being, if it sometimes seems broadcast network are cutting some slack to 10:00 shows (though not so much as to Friday shows), it's almost surely due to their C3 ratings stacking better than 8PM and 9PM shows. I mean, better than when ratings are compared using publicly available Live+SD numbers.

Spot said...

This is true. I guess the stuff I said about getting within the "same day window" doesn't really matter except from the public perception standpoint. Still, getting bumped into the L+3 number rather than live means the ads are more likely to be skipped.

Spot said...

I loved
reading this and in general I agree with your idea. You raise some excellent
points like the fact that FOX and sitcoms have been absent from the 10pm hour,
which somehow makes the numbers look worse. One thing I would like to know:
what is your view on 10 pm sitcoms? I don't know why networks seem so troubled
by this if the sitcoms are adult in content. Is it because they provide bad
lead ins for the affiliates? For instance, this year, I have always felt that
ABC went wrong in plugging Nashville on Wednesdays. A much more natural flow
would be DWTS Results/Nashville/Private Practice (and then Body of Proof) on
Tuesdays, while making Wednesdays comedy only with Happy Endings and Apartment
23. Do you see anything wrong with this?

As for your suggestions, I like them in theory, but it does depend a lot on how
confident they are on the new show. A new show that tanks at 10pm is fine,
because it only takes itself down with it. If a new show bombs at 9pm, it is
more complicated, because not only is the PUT levels higher (meaning there is a
higher opportunity cost in terms of what revenues could be), but also, and
especially, because it may take the 10pm show down with it. Successful veteran
or not… CSI hit its low this year in a night where Criminal Minds was out of
the picture. I agree that it was one of the most successful moves of the last
few years but we cannot kid ourselves and think that the extremely healthy,
compatible lead in didn’t play a major role in that. Had they put a dud like
Vegas in there, even if Vegas had performed slightly better than it did on
Tuesdays due to the superior Survivor lead-in (and that is not even obvious,
especially in the fall), I am pretty sure CSI would have performed worse than
it actually did; also, Criminal Minds would perform worse if moved to a 10pm
slot (due to it being moved and due to it having a lower PUT hour in general) –
bottom line, CBS would be worse off in net terms. I am not saying I dislike your
theory, I am just saying I don’t think it is always true. The pilots need to be
very very well tested for it to work, or else they bring down the entire night.
Especially (and this could be a topic for further research if you are interested
in it, I would love to read it), since it seems to be an halo effect of the 9pm
hour even in the 8pm hour. We’ve seen examples of this with stuff like the
middle falling when MF is not on the night, bones increasing when its companionship
is the following and not the mob doctor, etc. Worth taking a look IMO. Anyway,
excellent read as always!

Spot said...

Great point. I think that when the labels get mixed there certainly is a problem. Had 666 still flopped (even though not as hard... let's say a sampling of 2.6 instead of 2.1), it would have brought revenge down with it almost for sure, so it is likely that the net sum of the two ratings would have been worse. It depends on the degree of risk aversion of the nets, which of course depends on their confidence on the pilots IMO.

Spot said...

The affiliate thing is all that I've ever seen anyone come up with for 10:00 sitcoms. I also think that "harder to start a show" thing goes double for the 10:30 half-hour... tougher to get people tuned in to something because by 10:30 overall viewership is now steadily on the decline. But I agreed with you about Happy Endings/Apt 23... that was the ONLY reason I would have moved Nashville at midseason when everyone thought it was a no-brainer for some reason.

Agreed that the "model" schedule should probably only be used on higher-priority new shows. But I will say that most of my so-called model 10:00 veterans are not shows I'd be particularly worried about collapsing if the lead-in is bad. Parenthood stayed in the upper 1's even as The New Normal got as low as 1.2. SVU hasn't had a lead-in in years. I guess Revenge might collapse next season if the 9:00 show is weak, but that may have happened anyway.

Spot said...

I think this fall they were almost thinking of Revenge as a new show in terms of the potential upside. We can second-guess that based on what has gone down this season, but the fall ratings were decent enough that it wasn't a terrible decision.

I'm in favor of transitioning it to the "10:00 veteran" role now, because I think most would agree that the upside is much less.

Spot said...

The Grey's/Scandal case is one instance where I think 10:00 is still "better" than 9:00 because of the lead-in difference. Leading out of Grey's is much better than leading out of Last Resort/Zero Hour/Wife Swap. I might be open to flipping them in 2014-15 depending on how things go, but for now I would leave it alone.

If they do actually flip them next season (which we probably can't TOTALLY rule out), I would expect them to go pretty much all-out at 8:00. (SHIELD?)

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