Or, could it just be that the shows aren’t as good as they used to be?

Networks’ top shows at a ratings loss
In the past few weeks, a raft of top shows on all major networks have hit record lows: Lost, Desperate Housewives, ER, My Name Is Earl, The Simpsons, Two and a Half Men, CSI: Miami and, just Monday, Heroes. Still others, such as 24, Law & Order: Special Victims Unit and American Idol, had their worst ratings in two years or more.
The losses, never welcome, are especially alarming as networks gear up for their annual ritual of unfurling fall lineups in mid-May and selling the bulk of their ad time for next season, often based on current ratings.
No one has a definitive answer as to the cause. But as usual, there’s lots of finger-pointing. Some excuses wielded by TV executives and advertisers:
ïDaylight. The switch to daylight saving time in March, three weeks early, depressed viewing levels compared with last year as more viewers stayed outdoors. That, coupled with a larger load of repeats, hurt ratings for original episodes airing in recent weeks. “The two created a compound effect that has depressed regular-series viewing levels,” says CBS’ David Poltrack.
ïLong breaks. Serialized dramas have suffered from long hiatuses. They don’t repeat well, so networks are largely pulling them off; fans lose interest or lose track when they return. Lost, Jericho, Ugly Betty and Heroes ó which returned with 12 million viewers ó have been particularly susceptible.
ïDVR use. For some shows, time-shifting accounts for most of the falloff. Last year at this time, only 5% of the homes in Nielsen’s sample had the recording devices; now 15.8% do. That has sparked a wider gap between ratings for shows watched live ó the only yardstick used by Nielsen last year ó and those watched within seven days of their initial airing.
“If you look at live plus seven-day viewing, those declines for several shows start to vanish,” says Fox’s Preston Beckman. Lost lost 14% of its live viewing this season, but when time-shifting is factored in, the show is down only 1%. The Office, down 10%, is actually up 2% with delayed viewing included.
“We can’t really examine things in the same mind-set that we did a year ago,” ABC research chief Larry Hyams says.
Trouble is, advertisers so far are refusing to pay for all those procrastinating viewers, arguing that many skip commercials. So Nielsen is testing ways to measure audiences for commercials, not just programs.
Still other observers worry the shortfall may mark a tipping point as networks lose share to the Internet, cable and other media. “When you put it all together, it snowballs,” says Starcom Media’s Sam Armando. Yet hope springs eternal as the finale-filled May sweeps begins: “In another month we can have turned the corner.”