A scene from CBS' "Blue Bloods"
The big broadcast networks usher in the May "sweeps" period Thursday night, and with it, the final batch of original series and stunts before a summer of reruns and reality TV.
Among highlights: series finales of onetime hits Desperate Housewives (ending its ABC run May 13) and House (exiting Fox May 21), and the crowning of winners on American Idol, Dancing With the Stars and The Voice.
And the lowlight: The month caps a spring in which viewer apathy appears to have expanded, plunging initial ratings for many shows to record lows, particularly among adults ages 18 to 49, the sweet spot for a lot of advertisers.
Network executives blame several factors, from mild spring weather to daylight saving time and increased cable competition. But the clocks change every year, cable ratings have dropped, too, and total TV usage is down just slightly this month (though up 5% for the entire season). It's not that viewers have stopped watching; they're merely less-often doing so on the networks' schedules.
With 44% of U.S. homes now equipped with digital video recorders, parsing TV ratings requires a new math. In the first three months of this year, "14% of (all) homes using TV in prime time were using it to play something back on their DVR," says analyst Sam Armando of Chicago ad firm SMGx. That's up from 12% in the three previous months.
And while live TV viewing by young adults on the major networks is down 5% this season, when viewing delayed up to seven days is factored in, ratings are up 1%. Viewers would rather empty their DVR queue than channel-surf. Among extreme examples are NBC's Grimm and Fox's Fringe, two Friday dramas with ratings that now jump more than 60% within a week. (Viewers are recording Idol and Dancing more often, too, but their ratings are down 30% or more even after counting delayed playback.)
"DVR use continues to play a more important role," says ABC research chief Charles Kennedy, citing a heightened battle between a social-media-fueled "urgency" to see an episode live and the "convenience" of watching it later.
For networks, the problem is that they can't profit from all that delayed viewing: Advertisers pay only for the commercials that viewers don't skip, and only for three days after the programs first air. And the solution? "Create programming that is appointment TV," Armando says, "that people will watch a little more of live."