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MBPT Spotlight: Dwindling 10 p.m. Broadcast Viewership No Friend To Local Late-Night Newscasts

CBS affiliated stations had to be smiling this past Friday night when the network’s 10 p.m. police drama, Blue Bloods, drew 12.7 million viewers, a 2.5 rating in the 25-54 year-old “news” demo and an okay 1.5 18-49 rating on the second lowest TV viewing night of the week.

Not only was it the series’ most-watched episode of the season, but it offered a larger than usual potential audience lead-in to all of CBS’ affiliates local 11 p.m. newscasts.

Such smiles are the exception more than the rule these days. But despite continuously declining 10 p.m. live ratings over the past several years, in good part because more folks are taping programming in that hour to watch in delayed viewing mode, there hasn’t been much public complaining, even though the affiliates can’t be very happy with the trend.

The late local news on a year-round basis is one of the biggest revenue generators for TV stations, popular among both local and national spot TV advertisers. Local auto dealers, retail stores and restaurants use it frequently in most markets, but so do national advertisers hoping to reach viewers in categories such as auto, fast food, home improvement, insurance, mobile phones and movies.

The last major public outcry by an affiliate group in such a circumstance was during the fourth quarter of 2009 when NBC started the season airing the relocated Jay Leno Show weekday nights at 10. The show averaged 5.1 million viewers over the five nights with the best night being Tuesday when it averaged 5.9 million and a 1.9 demo rating. The worst average came on Mondays for viewers (4.6 million) and Fridays for the 18-49 demo (1.3).

A study by Harmelin Media at the time found that NBC affiliates averaged a 25% drop in their ratings, mostly attributed to the Leno show and its negative impact on the local news ratings. The same study found the ratings declines cost NBC affiliates $22 million each in the fourth quarter.

Years To Recovery
Some of the affiliates, pushed to the brink, were ready to begin preempting the Leno show with local programming when NBC, in January 2010, announced it was moving Leno back to late night. It took NBC a long time to reprogram those five primetime hours and it can be argued that the network, until its success with The Blacklist this season, never really recovered in that time period.

The Blacklist on Monday nights at 10 in fourth quarter this season averaged 10.3 million viewers, a 2.9 18-49 demo rating and a 3.7 rating in the 25-54 news demo. The network also has had some success on Tuesday nights with Chicago Fire, which averaged 8 million viewers, a 2.3 18-49 rating and a 2.8 25-54 rating. 

However, the other three weeknights at 10 have not been good. The network has only averaged about 5 million viewers and a 1.1 18-49 rating on Wednesday at 10 with new drama Ironside failing out of the gate and nothing else working in the time period so far. NBC moved veteran drama Parenthood from Tuesday at 10 to Thursday at 10 and the series is doing worse. Last season, it averaged 4.9 million viewers, a 1.8 18-49 rating and a 2.2 25-54 rating on Tuesday at 10. This season on Thursday at 10, it is averaging 4 million viewers with a 1.3 18-49 rating and a 1.6 among 25-54. Friday is worse. Dateline was averaging 4.7 million viewers with a 1.1 18-49 rating and a 1.5 in 25-54. Since being replaced by new drama Dracula, the time period has fallen to 3.5 million viewers with a 1.2 in 18-49 and a 1.5 in 25-54. Those numbers are worse than the Leno ratings of 2009.

There is a small positive for NBC, but not for the affiliates—Parenthood is doing better on Thursday nights than Rock Center with Brian Williams did last season in the same time period. In fourth quarter, Rock Center averaged 3.5 million viewers, a 0.9 18-49 demo rating and a 1.2 among 25-54.

CBS did not help its affiliates’ local late-night newscasts by moving Hawaii 5-0 from Monday night at 10 last season to Friday night at 9. Last season, 5-0 averaged 8.9 million viewers in fourth quarter with a 2.2 18-49 rating and a 2.9 25-54 rating. Its replacement in the time period this season, Hostages, in fourth quarter averaged 5.1 million viewers, a 1.2 18-49 rating and a 1.6 25-54 rating.

CBS did grow its Tuesday at 10 p.m. time period by moving Person of Interest over there, from Thursday at 9. Last season in fourth quarter, freshman drama Vegas (which was eventually cancelled) averaged a solid 11.1 million viewers, a 1.8 18-49 demo rating and a 2.6 25-54 rating. But this season, Person of Interest in fourth quarter averaged 12 million viewers with a 2.0 18-49 rating and a 3.0 25-54 rating.

CBS kept its 10 p.m. time period intact on Wednesday through Friday. The Wednesday and Thursday numbers slipped a bit in fourth quarter, while Friday is rating about the same. On Wednesday, CSI last season averaged 10.1 million viewers, a 2.3 18-49 rating and a 3.0 25-54 rating. This season it averaged 9.4 million with a 1.8 and a 2.6. On Thursday last season, Elementary averaged 10.3 million viewers, a 2.2 and a 3.0. This season, it averaged 8.5 million, a 1.7 and a 2.4 in fourth quarter. Finally, Blue Bloods on Friday last season averaged 10.8 million viewers, a 1.4 18-49 demo rating and a 2.2 among 25-54. This year the numbers are 11.1 million viewers, a similar 1.4 in 18-49 and a 2.1 in 25-54.

Mixed Bag For ABC
The 10 p.m. time period is also a mixed bag for ABC. Castle is solid and virtually flat on Monday nights at 10. Last season in fourth quarter it averaged 9.7 million viewers, a 1.8 18-49 rating and a 2.5 25-54 rating. This season its averages are 9.8 million viewers, a 1.9 18-49 rating and a 2.5 25-54 rating.

ABC premiered new freshman drama Lucky 7 on Tuesday at 10 and cancelled it after only a few episodes after it averaged just 3.5 million viewers and a 1.0 18-49 rating. The network has not recovered in the time period since.

On Wednesday night, ABC is also down in the 10 p.m. time period compared to last season in fourth quarter, with second-year drama Nashville losing some viewership. Last season, Nashville averaged 6.1 million viewers, a 2.0 18-49 rating and a 2.3 25-54 rating. This season it has dipped to 5.7 million, a 1.6 18-49 rating and a 2.0 25-54 rating.

A second successful 10 p.m. hour for ABC is on Thursday night, where drama Scandal has soared over its numbers from a year ago. In fourth quarter 2012, Scandal averaged 6.2 million viewers, a 2.0 18-49 rating and a 2.5 25-54 rating. In fourth quarter of 2013, the series averaged 9.1 million viewers, a 3.1 18-49 rating and a 3.5 25-54 rating.

Finally, on Friday nights at 10, newsmagazine 20/20 is up in viewers (5.8 million compared to 5.2 million) but down slightly in 18-49 (1.3 vs. 1.4) and also down slightly in 25-54 (1.9 vs. 2.0).

So, for the affiliates of the Big Three broadcast networks hoping to get a solid flow of viewers from their network’s 10 p.m. series to their 11 p.m. local newscasts, there are really only a couple of true positives: NBC’s The Blacklist and ABC’s Scandal. A step down from those are NBC’s Chicago Fire and CBS’ Person of Interest. CBS’ CSI, Elementary and Blue Bloods get honorable mentions.

That said, today’s 10 p.m. broadcast series can’t come close to matching the ratings and potential audience flow to the local late-night newscasts from a decade ago. During the 2004-05 season, most of the CBS and NBC 10 p.m. lineups averaged numbers that bury this season’s. During that season, CSI Miami on Monday nights at 10 on CBS averaged 19 million viewers and a 6.7 18-49 rating. On Tuesdays, Judging Amy at 10 averaged 11 million viewers and a 3.1; CSI: NY on Wednesdays averaged 13.6 million and 4.9; and Without a Trace on Thursdays averaged 18.9 and 6.1.

NBC during the 2004-05 season had Medium on Monday nights at 10 averaging 13.9 with a 5.4 18-49 rating; Law & Order SVU on Tuesdays averaged 13.5 million and a 5.1; and Law & Order on Wednesdays averaged 13 million and a 4.1.

ABC had NYPD Blue on Tuesday nights that averaged 10.1 million viewers and a 3.4 18-49 rating. That was also the last season for Monday Night Football on ABC, and it averaged 16.3 million viewers and a 6.5 18-49 rating. While MNF did provide a tremendous opportunity for audience flow, the games usually didn’t end until after midnight and depending on the score, many viewers had already tuned out before or right after the game. Still, the affiliates certainly got a big chunk of that 16.3 million, far more viewers than they are getting carried over from the 10 p.m. time periods today.

Going back to the 1999-2000 broadcast season, NBC’s ER was the most watched 10 p.m. show in primetime and also the most watched show on all of television. Its lead-in numbers to the 10 p.m. local newcasts might seem like fantasy today—24.9 million viewers, a 12.0 18-49 demo rating, and a 13.3 25-54 rating. Of course, that was before cable programming exploded into what it is today, creating mass viewer fragmentation.

Moving forward, the relationship between the networks and their affiliates is more than likely not going to improve, and should continue to deteriorate, thanks not only to the dwindling viewership at 10 p.m. on the broadcast networks, but also due to the networks’ continued pressuring for a growing share of retransmission fees they get from the cable networks that carry the stations locally.