Not so long ago, the broadcast networks trumpeted their 9 p.m. shows as "appointment viewing," an hour so named for its slate of sophisticated and stylish dramas that commanded a rapt audience who watched in real time.
Today, audiences are still watching at 9 p.m., but often not what the networks programmed for that time slot. Instead, people are increasingly playing back recorded shows from their digital video recorders.
"Essentially the DVR has been like adding a whole new competitor to the time period," said David Poltrack, CBS's chief research officer. "The new competitor is often our own programming."
Last week, the broadcast networks unveiled their new fall schedules during flashy presentations for hundreds of advertisers in New York. Television's spring ritual, known as the "upfronts," is important for the industry because it kicks off the annual sale of commercial time. And for ABC, CBS and NBC, improving on their 9 p.m. performances during the upcoming season is a priority.
But the challenges are great.
More than 36 percent of all TV households now are equipped with a DVR, accelerating shifts in viewing patterns. At 9 p.m., nearly 6 million viewers are watching previously recorded shows, according to ratings firm Nielsen Co. On Friday night, for example, as many people are watching recorded shows as the top program in the time period, "Numb3rs" on CBS, Poltrack said.
Meanwhile, cable channels have continued their incursion into broadcasters' traditional turf by running their own original dramas at 9. Broadcasters have made missteps too. The hour has become a graveyard for ambitious but failed efforts during the last few seasons, including ABC's "Eli Stone" and "Life on Mars," CBS's "Harper's Island" and "Eleventh Hour," and NBC's "My Own Worst Enemy."
The peacock network's problems were compounded by its recent disastrous experiment with Jay Leno in a prime-time show. NBC on May 14 also canceled the original "Law & Order" program, once the titan of 9 o'clock, because of dwindling audiences. NBC's ratings are down 27 percent at 9 p.m. compared with last season among advertisers' favorite demographic, 18-to-49-year-old viewers.
"We have learned that you have to put your best stuff on at 9 p.m. if you want to compete. Websites, cable channels, DVRs — they are all vying for people's attention," said Jeff Gaspin, chairman of NBC Universal Television Entertainment.
NBC executives a year ago predicted that a Leno show with topical humor would be "DVR-proof" because audiences would be inclined to watch in real time.
In fact, the DVR was a far more popular viewing option than the comedian. Since NBC shuffled Leno back to late night, ratings at 9 p.m. have increased by 40 percent, Gaspin said.
At 9 p.m., ratings for ABC are down 11 percent compared with the 2008-2009 TV season, and CBS is off 3 percent.