In Depth

Turner Research Shows Overall TV Viewing Up, Networks Down This Year

Television viewing has been up this year, but the big broadcast networks have registered record declines, according to the chief research officer at Turner Broadcasting.

Things will only get tougher for the broadcasters, says Turner’s Jack Wakshlag. He thinks the February transition to digital broadcasting will have a big effect as millions of homes that watch broadcast 100% of the time switch to cable for the digital signal and thus gain access to cable programming.

“The impact of this change is going to last for years,” he said.

In a presentation to television writers, Mr. Wakshlag said average weekly hours viewed per person is 33.4 so far this year, up from 32.3 last year. But people are watching more ad-supported cable and less broadcast network programming.

In prime time, cable viewing is up 10% while the Big Four broadcasters are down 7%. Among adults 18 to 49, cable is up 9% and broadcast is off 11%.

In the first few months of the broadcast season, the six network broadcasters have lost 2.6 million total viewers and 2.2 million viewers in the 18- to 49-year-old demographic—an unprecedented drop.

“If last year was bad, this year is really a problem,” Mr. Wakshlag said.

Only 12% of broadcasters’ returning shows are up from a year ago in the ratings, and only two new shows have improved their time periods.

That means using fewer pilots and doing less viewer research has yielded a worse batting average than in past seasons for the broadcasters.

At the same time, USA Network is setting prime-time records for delivering more total viewers, viewers 18-49 and viewers 25-54 than any cable network in history. TBS is at record-breaking level with adults 18 to 34. In all, 37 cable networks are seeing record ratings, including five of the top 10, showing that smaller cable networks haven’t been cannibalizing the big cable networks.

In total-day, Nickelodeon is No. 1 in total viewers and Nick at Nite is first with adults 18 to 49.

Citing Nielsen data, Mr. Wakshlag said that in broadcast-only homes getting ready for the digital transition, about 37% are switching to satellite or cable. The others are either getting new sets or buying converter boxes.

Before making the change, 93% of the viewing was of English-language broadcast stations. Afterwards, 41% of viewing went to broadcast and 54% went to English-language cable.

“The stations are very nervous about this,” he said.

Looking further forward, Mr. Wakshlag said NBC’s new prime-time Jay Leno show is unlikely to get higher ratings than NBC’s current 10 p.m. schedule. The move is a sign that broadcast no longer has a stranglehold on scripted dramas and comedies on TV.

With the off-network pipeline for syndication drying up, Turner is increasing the amount of original scripted shows it airs.

“We see it as a great business,” Mr. Wakshlag said.