A Check On How The Fall TV Season Is Going

With the fall television season well under way, Renee Montagne talks to reporter Kim Masters about how the broadcast networks and their new shows are faring. Masters is editor-at-large for The Hollywood Reporter and host of The Business on member station KCRW.

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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

And I'm Renee Montagne.

The fall TV season is well under way, so it's a good time to see how these new shows are paying off - or not - for the networks. There are the high profile launches - the Sherlock Holmes reboot on CBS, the Mindy Kaling comedy on Fox and the soapy drama "Nashville" on ABC. Kim Masters reports on the business of entertainment as editor-at-large for The Hollywood Reporter. And she joined us in our studios here at NPR West to talk about the season.

Good morning.

KIM MASTERS: Hey, Renee.

MONTAGNE: First of all, it sounds like an interesting crop of new shows. But the question is, are people watching them?

MASTERS: And the evidence so far is that there is a really sharp drop off in viewership. The broadcast networks are taking a beating. An average of 15 percent down in the coveted 18-49-year-old demographic. CBS down 25 percent. Fox down 24 percent. ABC, 19 percent. The only one, contrary to expectations, doing somewhat better is NBC. So it's a worrisome trend.

MONTAGNE: How much, Kim, do DVRs have to do with this decline in viewership?

MASTERS: Well, you know, it appears to be quite a lot. This is kind of the year of the DVR now. DVRs are getting to a point of saturation. Not quite 50 percent of the country has them. And people are really learning to use them. So a lot of shows are being recorded to watch later.

And some of the shows, when you add three days after the day of broadcast, have really big bumps in viewership. One of the big beneficiaries of that is the breakout show "Revolution" on NBC, from the J.J. Abrams television factory. He brought you "Alias" and "Lost." It went up about 13 percent if you add three days after for people to watch on the DVR. And it went up over 65 percent if you add seven days.

So people are - a lot of the shows are getting the benefit of that bump from DVRs. But it raises a big question about whether people are still watching the ads. You know, if the ratings go up, that's great. But if they're fast forwarding through the ads, not so great from the point of the view of the people who are buying those ads.

MONTAGNE: And, Kim, plenty of younger people these days curate their own TV schedule.

MASTERS: Yeah. I mean, I've talked to TV executives who say their young kids, and their even not so young kids, now, are watching TV online, on services like Hulu, watching on, you know, the networks on websites. But they don't necessarily even recognize a particular network. They just have a show that they want to watch, and they watch it when they feel like it.

So that is a situation that suggest that this old model that a lot of people grew up with, where there's a show and it's on Thursday night on NBC and it's called "Seinfeld" and you really want to be there and watch it, it's just disintegrating.

MONTAGNE: What about competition directly from online - something like YouTube or Netflix? How much damage is that doing?

MASTERS: Well, that's unclear, but it's obviously becoming a bigger and bigger factor. You see YouTube setting up tons of channels. You know, recruiting celebrities like Sarah Silverman to be part of that process and put their names on these things and brand them.

You see Netflix is going to come out in February with a 13-part series, "House of Cards," which is a remake of a British series. Very expensive, directed by an A-list movie director, David Fincher, starring Kevin Spacey. They're going to put all 13 episodes online at once.

So are you going to sit and watch those episodes one after the other or are you going to root around on a network schedule for a show that you might be able to put on your DVR and watch later?

MONTAGNE: Although, of course, what does come to mind is that networks are still the biggest games in town. They have the most people viewing them, by far, compared to cable or anything else. So where does all this sort of bad news leave them?

MASTERS: Well, they are still the biggest game in town, especially for something like a sports event. You know, NBC's success in part this season is based on football on Sunday night. And, you know, that's the kind of thing that you don't put on your DVR, because somebody will ruin it for you. And you watch live. So those shows are increasing valuable. So it's a kind of a mixed bag.

The forecast, long term, is that things are going to change and change a lot. But short term, I don't know that advertisers know where else to go to get this kind of bang for the buck. I mean, if you look at a show like "Mad Men," which makes a lot of noise on AMC, that show is so tiny it wouldn't last a week on a broadcast network. So they still are riding the wave, it's just a question of how long can they keep it up.

MONTAGNE: Kim, nice to talk to you as always.

MASTERS: Thank you, Renee.

MONTAGNE: Kim Masters hosts The Business on member station KCRW.

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