Here’s one of the safest bets you’ll find this fall: one month into the new television season the media will be filled with stories about how poorly the networks are doing.
What’s a little less certain is whether those stories will actually be true.
The broadcast networks are trying hard to get your attention for a season that kicks off on Sept. 23. ABC is passing out daisies to pedestrians to hawk its new series “Pushing Daisies.” CBS is advertising its Miami-set “Cane” with an ad that smells like mojitos. Every new NBC series can be seen online before they air on television.
They’re talking tough, too. “Our fall is like the summer motion-picture blockbuster time and we are really confident that we will get a big audience,” said Ben Silverman, NBC entertainment president.
Yet if there’s a faint odor of desperation in the air, that’s understandable.
The networks suffered through an alarming spring of poor ratings, followed by a lackluster summer. And it’s not like the factors driving those problems have gone away.
Last spring was a benchmark in large numbers of TV viewers beginning to take control of their schedules. Through digital video recorders, video on demand and streaming of programs on iTunes and elsewhere, there’s no reason to fear anymore if you can’t be in front of the TV Thursday to watch “Grey’s Anatomy” live.
The problem is the TV business is used to instant results. Network executives have faxes in their bedrooms, or can call a special number before dawn to hear how many people watched their prime-time shows the night before.
An estimated one in five American TV homes now have digital video recorders, a sharp jump from the 12 percent last September, researchers say. Those numbers alone tell you more people will be taping their favorite programs to watch later.
That’s bound to make those initial ratings ugly compared to the year before, fueling the notion that viewers are abandoning network television.
To get a truer sense of how the industry is doing, it’s probably better to wait for Nielsen Media Research’s measurement of who watches a program within seven days of its first airing. Network suits would also be very interested in ratings for commercial minutes, and they take three weeks.
“The technology of measuring how many people watch TV has not caught up with how people are watching TV,” said Sarah Bunting, co-founder of the Web site Television Without Pity. “They watch. They’re just not making appointment television, because that’s not really necessary.”
Add in DVR viewing, broadband streaming, video on demand and, eventually, DVDs and more people may see certain shows than they have in the past — even if that’s not the public perception, said Jeff Bader, scheduling chief for ABC.
Perhaps. Or there could be less people interested in what the networks have to offer.
Public isn't jazzed about new shows
The networks largely dismiss the summer months, but there were still some disturbing signs this year. Viewership on ABC, CBS, NBC and Fox was down 9 percent this summer compared to 2006, even though they aired twice as many new shows, said Jack Wakshlag, chief researcher for the Turner Networks.
That’s a loss of 1.5 million households, or about the size of the Tampa-St. Petersburg market.
Viewers abandoned reruns in droves, particularly drama reruns, and increasingly sought out fresh series on cable like TNT’s “The Closer.” Television’s biggest event of the summer, the premiere of “High School Musical 2,” was on cable’s Disney Channel.
Broadcasters suggest there will be little carryover into the fall. But when the average American home has more than 100 channels, it’s probably not a good idea to so willingly cede ground. They may not come back.
“This makes people shift around more,” said Steve Sternberg, an analyst for the Madison Avenue firm Magna Global. “It’s not, ‘let’s just see what’s on cable.’ People are becoming more familiar with the individual networks.”
Some network executives are worried that DVR usage also may make it tougher for new series to catch on. If people have a choice of trying out something new, or catching a “Heroes” episode they have taped, the unfamiliar may lose out.
It would help if there were intense curiosity among the public — call it buzz — about new shows like NBC’s “Bionic Woman” remake, ABC’s “Cavemen” or CBS’ “Kid Nation.”
The online media marketing firm BrandIntel suggests there is. Its measurement of “buzz,” essentially how much Internet chatter there is about upcoming network series, is up over last year, the company reported. Others who watch the industry are suspicious.
“There are several interesting pilots,” said veteran television critic Frazier Moore of The Associated Press, who’s watched them all. “It is hard to say if the series will be interesting. But there is less buzz about them than any recent season I can recall.”
The whole idea of whether a series is buzzed about is pretty meaningless anyway, Sternberg said. There’s no correlation between buzz and success: far more people were talking late last summer about “Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip” than “Heroes,” for example, he said.
“Every two or three years you have excitement at the start of a season,” he said. “Most of the time people say there’s nothing on the schedule. I remember the year ‘ER’ and ‘Friends’ came out — that was considered one of the blandest schedules I’d ever seen.”