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Daylight saving is the worst thing that happens to television

March 9, 2014
March 9, 2014

As Americans look forward to Daylight Saving Time’s return today—at long last, an additional hour of sunlight to enjoy—TV executives and advertisers aren’t among them.

That’s because when the time change arrives, the industry must grapple with a corresponding drop in viewership (measured as Households Using Television, or HUT levels). That, in turn, translates into ratings declines across the board—especially in DST’s first week— for programs airing in the early evening, as some viewers choose to enjoy their additional hour of daylight away from their TV.

Last year, viewership from 6:30 to 7pm (when the national evening news airs on the East Coast) dropped 7% during the first week of Daylight Saving. And that trend extended to primetime programming, especially during the earlier hours. Several long-running network shows hit series rating lows during DST’s first week last year, including Grey’s Anatomy, Two and a Half Men and American Idol, according to Broadcasting & Cable. Meanwhile, NBC suffered its lowest-rated week in history. Throughout that same week, primetime viewer levels dropped more than 3%, resulting in nightly ratings declines among viewers 18-49 (the most coveted by advertisers) as much as 7% from the previous week. (A few shows, like Survivor, did manage to add viewers.)

While those drops aren’t cataclysmic, they’re worrisome enough that some networks have proactively shifted their lineups in preparation for Daylight Saving. “Come March, when Daylight Savings Time and the HUT level goes down in the early evening, it really takes its toll on the 8 o’clock hour, particularly for comedies,” FOX Entertainment chairman Kevin Reilly said recently at the Television Critics Association’s winter press tour, explaining his decision to eliminate his Tuesday 8 pm sitcom block.

Typically, broadcasters try to schedule reruns during this week, so as not to waste an original episode, this year their hands are tired. Because networks didn’t put original programming on during the Winter Olympics (which lasted more than half of February), they now have a backlog of midseason shows that must run before May, when they decide which shows to cancel or renew for another season. That leaves them no choice but to roll some of those programs out this week—on March 9, ABC will debut Resurrection while FOX premieres Cosmos; a day later, NBC launches Believe.

This week’s lighter viewership means those new shows will have an even more difficult time than usual attracting new viewers. While viewing levels should return to normal in the coming weeks, for now, the networks aren’t able to see the (day)light at the end of the tunnel.

Follow Jason on Twitter @jasonlynch. We welcome your comments at ideas@qz.com

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