By David Bauder
NEW YORK — Much of the prime-time audience lost to NBC when Jay Leno moved into prime-time has gone not to its rivals but the digital video recorder.
Rival network executives seemed almost giddy at the possibilities last spring after NBC announced Leno would do a comedy show five nights a week at 10 p.m. There will be more viewers available “for people who put on great dramas,” said Leslie Moonves, CBS chief executive, “and that’s what we do.”
It hasn’t quite worked out that way.
NBC’s audience at that hour is down sharply, as many predicted. CBS is up 6 percent over last season, primarily because it moved the hit series “The Mentalist” into that slot; on three of the five nights, its audience is down. ABC is also down slightly at that hour, and it wasn’t exactly overwhelmed with hits last year, either.
With one-third of American TV households now equipped with DVRs such as TiVo, the 10 p.m. hour is emerging as a popular time for people to catch up on what they missed earlier in the evening, or earlier in the week.
Here’s some math: NBC has lost an average of 1.8 household ratings points at the 10 p.m. hour compared to fall 2008, according to the Nielsen Co. At the same time, DVR usage — which also is measured by Nielsen — is up by 1.4 points in that hour.
“The DVR phenomenon is a little bit higher than we thought,” said David Poltrack, CBS’ chief research executive.
For example, many people watch CBS’ “CSI: Crime Scene Investigation” Thursdays at 9, tape ABC’s “Grey’s Anatomy” at the same time, then watch the medical soap an hour later, he said. They may tape “The Mentalist” (Thursday at 10) for later viewing. One casualty of growing DVR usage is that Friday nights, home of “Medium” and “Ugly Betty,” are becoming a TV wasteland because so many people are catching up on programs they missed during the week.
DVR playback is important for programs, yet isn’t quite as valuable a commodity for the networks since viewers have the option to fast- forward through commercials.
“You’d rather have a live viewer than a playback viewer,” Poltrack said, “but you’d rather have a playback viewer than nothing at all.”
NBC will settle for any new viewers it can get for Leno. Here’s how rough the neighborhood is in prime-time: Leno was the universally hailed king of late-night TV this spring and is now a punching bag, with roughly the same number of people watching him. But the standards are higher earlier in the night.
The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.