Nellie Andreeva

Was NBC onto something after all with its Jay Leno primetime experiment? Because for the current fourth week of the season, NBC’s new Monday-Thursday 10 PM lineup is poised for the first time to fall below the rating levels of the ill-fated Jay Leno Show for the same week a year ago.

Based on Live+same day ratings for Monday-Thursday, which include live viewing and same-night DVR viewing, as well as fast nationals for Friday, NBC is averaging a 1.595 rating among adults 18-49 at 10 PM this week. A year ago, The Jay Leno Show averaged a 1.642 for the same week in Live+same day. And that is despite the fact that, after NBC’s new 10 PM shows tied Leno last week, NBC boosted significantly its Friday performance in the hour by replacing poorly-rated new legal drama Outlaw with Dateline, going up from a 0.9 to 1.3 in the 18-49 demo this Friday.

For its entire three-week run on Fridays, Outlaw rated well below The Jay Leno Show. The Apprentice, stuck at a 1.3 at 10 PM on Thursdays for the past 3 weeks, also has been running lower than Leno by a wide margin. This week, the Jerry Bruckheimer-produced new NBC drama Chase on Monday joined them, dipping below Leno levels with a 1.5. On Tuesday, 10 PM drama Parenthood logged a 2.0 this week, up .2 from Leno’s delivery in the hour last year, but the two were tied last week. On Wednesday, Law & Order: Los Angeles (1.9) was only .1 higher than Leno, and, with 2 consecutive week-to-week drops of more than 20%, the Law & Order spinoff is on track to slip below Leno next week.

Of course, the picture will change when using Live+7 ratings, which reflect viewers’ DVR use for up to a week after a show’s original airing. Last year, only 2 of the 5 Jay Leno shows during premiere week got a small DVR bump, 6%. This year, all 5 NBC 10 PM shows airing in Jay Leno Show‘s slot got a 20%+ boost, led by Parenthood with 36%. But those shows’ C3 ratings – an indication how many viewers watch the commercials during a show, something advertisers use as base to set ad rates – are relatively low. In fact, there is no 10 PM show on any network in the Top 10 of the recently released C3 rankings for this year’s premiere week. There are only 2 in the top 20 – CBS’ Hawaii Five-0 (No. 13) and The Mentalist (No.20). This is another reason for concern for the broadcast networks who are facing big ratings erosion at 10 PM. For the first 3 weeks of the season, CBS, the strongest network by far this fall, is down 13% year-to-year at 10 PM to a 2.8. (It is still well ahead of the competition, winning the 10 PM hour on 16 of 19 nights in 18-49, and 18 of 19 in total viewers). ABC, which has been in a free-fall with a string of misfires this season, is down 22% to a 2.1, only .2 ahead of third-place NBC. Given its very low benchmark with Leno last fall, NBC is slightly up, 6%, but that margin is quickly shrinking as the network’s performance slides down each week.

Why such big declines? Some point to CBS’ and ABC’s scripted series facing scripted competition from NBC in the hour vs. The Jay Leno Show last year (though NBC has The Apprentice on Thursdays and just subbed cancelled new drama Outlaw with Dateline on Fridays). Then we have the much talked about heavy DVR use in the 10 PM hour when people are said to be catching up on programs they recorded at 8 PM and 9 PM. Indeed, the PUT (people using television) levels at 10 PM have slipped 3% in the 18-49 demo from last year. (And no, younger viewers are not simply migrating to basic cable, their PUT levels are slightly down too). But can such a small PUT drop account for the double-digit declines for ABC and CBS in the hour? And while DVR penetration in the pool of homes Nielsen uses to calculate its ratings is at 38% this fall, up from 33% a year ago, the percentage lifts shows get from week-long DVR viewing this season appear similar to last fall’s. One of the most DVR-ed 10 PM series, CBS’ Mentalist, added 29% to its Live+same day demo rating for premiere week this year in Live+7. Last year, the boost was 29%. The increase for CBS’ other hot DVR performer, new Monday 10 PM drama Hawaii Five-0 (28%) was was identical to how much last year’s CBS Friday 10 PM drama Numbers (28%) went up, with the boost of this year’s CBS 10 PM freshman The Defenders in line with the percentage increases for 10 PM dramas CSI: Miami and CSI: NY last year.

I’m not sure there is an easy explanation for the case of disappearing viewers at 10 PM. And I think there may have been something in NBC’s idea of launching a DVR-proof, less-expensive show in the hour. But as they say in Hollywood, it all comes down to execution. And that’s one area where NBC brass definitely got it wrong with Leno.

TV Editor Nellie Andreeva - tip her here.

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