In March, as television viewers gained an extra hour of daylight, a dark cloud gathered over ratings. Only now is it beginning to lift.
Daylight Saving Time, which began three weeks earlier than in years past, appears to have delivered a sucker punch to the Big Four broadcast networks and wrought havoc with ratings of syndicated shows. Although it is hard to determine the precise role the early time change played, TV researchers consider the impact to be significant.
The networks have lost 0.6 rating point this season, far worse than the basic-cable business, which has generally improved and saw only a mild downturn after the time change. At ABC, CBS, Fox and NBC, the cumulative 18-49 rating tumbled 16%—from 13.8 to 11.6—during the three-week period immediately after clocks sprung ahead on March 11.
Over the subsequent three weeks, when comparisons for both years included Daylight Saving Time, the networks saw their ratings fall another 9%, from 12.2 to 11.1.
Researchers blame delayed viewing on digital video recorders in part for ratings declines that preceded the time change. And the demise of Monday Night Football on ABC, combined with NBC's expected decline after last year's Olympics ratings surge, accounts for a good part of the overall drop. But declines in syndicated shows airing in the evening hours suggest a Daylight Saving connection.
Off-network sitcoms suffered the most, losing 15% of their ratings. Among the aging collection of 17 returning comedies, only two showed gains: Sony's fourth-place King of Queens was up 22%, from 2.7 to 3.3, and CBS Television Distribution's seventh-ranked Frasier soared 24%, from 1.7 to 2.1. The drop would have been far greater had the two shows' basic-cable runs been discounted from their averages.
Since game shows, notably stalwarts Jeopardy! and Wheel of Fortune, air in access, they too were hurt, flipping from a 2% gain prior to March 11 to a 2% drop through mid-April.
Daytime court and talk also dropped (7% and 9%, respectively) but that trend had begun before the time change.
Magazine shows managed the best, holding steady this season (through April 15) with their 2005-06 averages. But the group, which largely airs in late-afternoon and early-evening time periods, lost the 3% increase over last year's ratings it had enjoyed before Daylight Saving Time started.
There were some bright spots. Four first-run strips posted year-to-year increases. NBC Universal's Access Hollywood (from 2.6 to 2.7) and Warner Bros.' Judge Mathis (2.4 to 2.5) each climbed 4%.
And magazine and game-show ratings benefited from 6% gains for CBS Television Distribution's Entertainment Tonight (5.2 to 5.5) and Buena Vista Television's Who Wants To Be a Millionaire (3.2 to 3.4).
ET Executive Producer Linda Bell Blue credits the ratings spike to viewer loyalty but adds, “Having the last interviews with Anna Nicole Smith and being the first to report her death and the only television show allowed inside her funeral helped.”
ET and companion The Insider (down 4% to 2.7 from 2.8) have turned the protracted controversy over the former Playboy centerfold's death and the subsequent custody battle over her child into the centerpiece of both shows for weeks.
Bell Blue also cites a multitude of other celebrity scandals and missteps—from the reliable Britney Spears to the leaked voicemail of Alec Baldwin berating his daughter—for boosting ET's ratings.
But the Anna Nicole saga continues to play out. Recently, ET and The Insider breathlessly promoted new pictures of Smith's infant daughter lying on a blanket. And they have begun showcasing re-created scenes of Smith's tabloid life currently being shot for a quickie theatrical movie.