Networks’ 10 O’Clock Problem: Younger Viewers Going to Cable

by | February 21, 2011 at 2:50 PM | TV News

For all the criticism NBC endured for its failed Jay Leno experiment at 10 p.m. weekdays in 2009, you can at least credit the network for identifying a problem that has only gotten worse since then.

Inept (or ill-considered) as “The Jay Leno Show” may have been, NBC was addressing a situation that continues to bedevil broadcast TV – namely, the migration of younger viewers to, well, everywhere but the scripted dramas that still predominate on the networks in the 10-11 p.m. hour (9-10c).

The New York Times reported on the dilemma over the weekend, noting the consternation of network executives who complain about the difficulty of launching “break-out” hits at 10 p.m. weekdays, particularly shows that will attract highly coveted younger viewers.

The story then goes on to point out that there are plenty of 10 p.m. (9c) shows on TV that have become hits among 18-49s (and some of the younger demos), only these shows happen to be on cable: “Jersey Shore” and “Teen Mom” (MTV), “Tosh.0” (Comedy Central), “Real Housewives of Beverly Hills” (Bravo). The story even reports that History Channel’s “Pawn Stars,” seen Monday nights 10/9c, gets better numbers in the 18-49 group than two of network TV’s most popular dramas – “Law & Order: SVU” on NBC Wednesday nights at 10/9c and “The Mentalist” on CBS Thursday nights at 10/9c.

In addition to the 10 p.m. shows on cable cutting into the networks’ 18-49 audience, research conducted by NBC found that the 10-11 hour is the time of day when many people watch the shows they recorded earlier on their DVRs. The fact that viewers are favoring recorded programs over the shows the networks have scheduled in the time period is another reason why the networks are worried about the viability of the hour.

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As the Times story points out, the typical, scripted network drama at 10 p.m. is increasingly costly to produce with ever-diminishing returns, especially as compared to shows such as “Jersey Shore” or “Pawn Stars.”

“The Jay Leno Show” was also cheaper to produce than scripted dramas. And at the time, NBC believed Leno’s nightly 10 p.m. show would also address another problem: The network felt the show – with its emphasis on topical, headline-driven comedy that would be fresh daily – would work better in the long run than scripted series consisting of just 22 episodes a season that, by necessity, would have to be re-run several times, and also preempted for various stretches.

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Basically, NBC thought viewers would form some sort of nightly habit for “The Jay Leno Show.” But that didn’t materialize and scripted dramas returned, leaving NBC, and the other broadcast networks, with a problem that still lingers.