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Research Report: Time Change a Pain for TV

Oct 3, 2005  •  Post A Comment

Farmers may be able to make more hay from the expansion of daylight-saving time by four weeks starting in 2007, but the television business stands to lose viewers for its new crop of shows that season.

Syndicated programming and local newscasts are particularly at odds with the changes that will start in 2007 and were mandated by the omnibus energy bill that President Bush signed in August. The effect on prime time likely will be limited.

Nielsen Media Research, too, is bracing itself for complications during the important November ratings sweep in 2007.

Television researchers, who acknowledge that even a hundredth of a ratings point in today’s marketplace can have significant economic value, have tracked the effect of daylight-saving time on the levels of homes using television and persons using television for years. As they assess just how much the extra daylight in 2007 might affect TV’s bottom lines, they said weather and other seasonal or regional factors could exacerbate or ameliorate the effect of additional sunlight at the end of the day.

In areas that use daylight-saving time, clocks are set forward an hour in April-so the sun seems to set an hour later-then set back an hour in the fall. The switch always affects TV viewership to some extent, especially during the fall change, since during daylight time the sun remains out later, presumably inviting people to stay outside and away from their TVs longer. The effect of daylight-saving time is stronger in regions beset by cold winters than in the sunny South or West.

Starting in 2007, daylight-saving time will begin three weeks earlier than it does now (on the second Sunday in March) and end a week later (on the first Sunday in November).

Extending it will mean one more week of the daylight-saving damper on ratings and revenues in the fourth quarter, which is a high-profile period for businesses.

Indeed, the particular complication is in the fall. New network and local lineups will be less than two months old when timepieces are reset to standard time. Even an extra week of longer daylight will keep viewers away from the TV, which can affect the formation of viewing habits.

In March the disruption will not be as drastic, since viewing patterns are already pretty well set. March is not a major sweeps period. May sweeps, which are important, already occur during daylight-saving time.

The biggest impact will be felt between 5-9 p.m. That means syndicators, local stations and their news operations are vulnerable, as are the networks’ evening newscasts and the first hour of prime time.

Rep. Fred Upton, R-Mich., championed the daylight time measure as an energy saver. (Daylight-saving time is not observed in Arizona, parts of Indiana, Puerto Rico, Hawaii, the U.S. Virgin Islands and American Samoa.)

In addition to jangling viewers’ circadian clocks while they are still deciding on new appointment shows, the time change in 2007 will make for an unusual situation for the November sweeps.

Nielsen Media Research doesn’t like to have a time change take place within a sweeps period because it can confuse diary keepers.

Programmers don’t like the November sweeps to include Thanksgiving because PUT levels plummet during the holiday week and weekend. And they won’t receive the books containing their detailed ratings and demographic breakdowns from Nielsen until Christmas crunch time.

There is no way to schedule a four-week sweeps period to the satisfaction of all in a three-week window.

Paul Donato, senior VP and chief media research officer for Nielsen Media Research, said deciding what to do about the November sweeps is “something we’re going to have to do some more work on.”

Rep. Upton originally proposed eight more weeks of daylight time. Half of that was cut by a House/Senate conference committee. A spokesman for Rep. Upton said he does not remember having received any comments from anyone in the TV industry over the several months in which he was promoting his measure. (The airline industry was against the change because of the additional complications of coordinating U.S. and international flight schedules.)

Rep. Upton’s spokesman said that one of the reasons for not starting the additional daylight time until 2007 was to give Mexico and Canada, which also observe daylight-saving time, enough time to decide whether to coordinate their clocks.

Mitch Burg, president of the Syndicated Network Television Associationt, said, “I don’t think there will be any significant impact” once the effects of daylight-saving are spread across the year. “Our average rating doesn’t change over the year,” he said.

But Bruce K. Rosenblum, executive VP of Warner Bros. Media Research, said the post-daylight-saving ratings pops are always pronounced. He has been tracking A-list syndicated sitcoms’ performance in the month before and the month after daylight-saving time ends since 1975.

“We have noticed that when daylight-saving time ends that syndicated sitcoms in that 5-7 [p.m.] block, that pre- and access block, tend to really pick up. Over the years, we’ve noticed anywhere from 12 to 20 percent gains, depending on the sitcom,” he said. “It makes sense. It’s getting darker earlier. These are family-type shows, with a lot of teen and kid audience, and parents are getting teens and kids into the house earlier, or they’re in the house and likely be watching television, so the numbers for these shows start to pop.”

For network programmers, the effect of later sunsets is largely restricted to the 8-9 p.m. hour. David Poltrack, executive VP of research and planning for CBS, calculated that the additional weeks of daylight time will mean a PUT level loss of less than one-tenth of one percentage point on an annual basis.

For networks that program only two hours per night and target younger viewers, daylight time changes may present a double bind. “Daylight-saving time has historically shown some impact on 18 to 34 viewing PUT levels, and we’ll have to examine measurement levels more closely when the law changes in 2007,” said Paul McGuire, a spokesman for The WB. “Every tenth of a ratings point is crucial in this business, and that’s not about to change, now or in two years.”

“It’s just another variable that makes it even tougher,” Mr. Rosenblum said. “You’re fighting for your life and rating points in this business these days, and every time a new nuance occurs, that affects measurement in some way. Every tenth of a point is impacting that syndication distributor and the advertisers in those shows.”

“A tenth of a point does have a lot of value to it,” Mr. Rosenblum said. “In the business today, we’re breaking some of these numbers down into hundredths of a point, and every hundredth of a point has value. If we have become a business that’s tracking hundredths of points, then a full tenth of a point is significant and there’s a lot of money at stake.”

In Grand Rapids, Mich., which is located on the western edge of the Eastern time zone, the effects of later sunset can be extreme. An executive at a network affiliate there got married on the longest day of the year, and even though her reception lasted well into the night, she said they never needed to turn on lights. People also tell stories about playing golf at 9 p.m. But because the city is not metered by Nielsen, the effects can be hard to quantify.

Bryn Burns, director of strategic analysis for Frank N. Magid Associates, consultants to local TV stations, said an extension that causes a “noticeable drop” in PUT levels with daylight-saving time may especially impact markets in which long commutes are the rule, rather than the exception.

Alan Frank, president and CEO of Post-Newsweek Stations, prefers to remain optimistic that the negative impact of a longer daylight-saving time period on afternoon newscasts can be balanced by an increase in interest in early-morning newscasts.

But Mr. Poltrack joked that counteracting daylight time is going to require more r
igorous action on the part of programmers: “We’re trying to get all people inside all the time so that they never leave the machines that count viewers, yet they refuse to do that.”