No One Watches TV at 10, Except Those Who Do

Bill Carter of the New York Times recently had an article on something I’ve been interested in: 10 o’clock shows, once the crown jewel of major broadcast networks in both ratings and awards, are an endangered species. Sort of.

The article lays out the problems the networks are having with the hour, the ones that caused NBC to dump it in Jay Leno’s lap and has made Fox in no hurry to ever expand into that hour. But it also notes that a familiar explanation for the collapse of the hour may be wrong. In Carter’s book “The War For Prime Time,” sourced largely from network insiders, we hear that a key reason for the decline of 10 o’clock is the DVR. That’s one reason Leno was never able to live up even to NBC’s modest ratings expectations; according to the network’s research, people would watch some other show on DVR at 10 o’clock instead of watching the DVR-proof Leno. (The possibility that they just skipped Leno because his show was terrible is not one you’re going to hear raised by NBC insiders, on or off the record.) But we’ve seen recently that shows can do great at 10. That’s when Jersey Shore and many of the other big cable hits are on. So viewers aren’t abandoning 10 o’clock broadcast shows for the DVR; they’re abandoning them because that’s the hour when the fragmentation of the audience becomes most acute. The basic cable networks have things to offer then, and the viewers go to MTV or BET or TV Land to get whatever the broadcast networks won’t give them at 10.

There are signs that even in broadcast, quality and/or popularity of the 10 o’clock stuff may be taking a bit of an upturn lately, particularly after NBC dropped its Leno experiment. The best dramas on CBS and NBC respectively are 10 o’clock shows competing directly against each other (The Good Wife and Parenthood). And CBS has introduced some reasonably successful new 10 o’clock shows this season in Hawaii 5-0, Blue Bloods and — ugh — Criminal Minds 2: The Mindening.  So there are successes at 10 even on broadcast TV; they’re just not as big as they used to be, and the good ones won’t win Emmys because the cable networks have those tied up. So while NBC was wrong to give up on the hour, they weren’t wrong that expectations need to be lower.

One of Carter’s sources for the article, CBS’s Kelly Kahl, argues that networks should deal with this by shifting from trying to produce huge hits at 10 to “asset management.” Hawaii 5-0 is an example of this: its numbers are really not that spectacular considering its time slot and the amount of promotion it got. But it’s a franchise the network owns, one that will syndicate well and will translate well into foreign markets, and as long as it does well enough to justify its place in the lineup for a few years, it’ll make a huge amount of money. Its immediate time slot competitor, Castle, may be the same way for ABC. If it were a bigger hit, they might consider moving it to an earlier time slot; as it is, it can thrive on lowered expectations.

When you remember that the major networks have by and large done a poor job of developing big, syndication-friendly hits for themselves —  ABC’s biggest hit, Modern Family, is owned by Fox; CBS watches Warner Brothers take home the syndication money for its hit sitcoms — 10 o’clock may be the perfect place to just develop some in-house franchises, in a less high-pressure enviroment. And there’s nothing networks love more than franchises.

I don’t know what the “asset management” idea means for any particular show, though it may mean good things for The Good Wife‘s chances of running a while. It’s not particularly syndication-friendly, but it is a CBS property and it does get nominated for awards, and even if it doesn’t stay on its current night, I could see the network emphasizing its ratings strengths (lots of people watch), excusing its ratings weaknesses (not enough young folk watch) and keeping it around. It’s 10 o’clock, and winning the time slot in the Coveted Demographic may matter more than executives say it does — but with cable siphoning off so many viewers, it may not matter as much as it did a few years ago.

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