David Letterman picked a good time to go on a vacation.
Since Time Warner Cable stopped carrying CBS-owned TV stations in New York, Los Angeles and Dallas a week ago, all three outlets have experienced rating declines for both national programming and local news.
"The Late Show with David Letterman" has been in reruns this week, so the lower numbers for his show aren't alarming. But many of the local newscasts in Los Angeles, New York and Dallas have bled viewers, as Time Warner Cable is a a major pay-TV distributor in those markets.
In Los Angeles, the pain for KCBS-TV Channel 2 has been felt particularly hard in its 5 p.m. and 11 p.m. newscasts. Monday through Thursday of this week, the 5 p.m. news averaged 73,000 viewers, down 33% from the previous week. The 11 p.m. news averaged 119,000 viewers, down 25% from the previous week.
Local news is where television stations generate the bulk of their revenue.
In Dallas-Fort Worth, CBS-owned KTVT-TV is taking it on the chin. The audience for the station's 6 p.m. news was off 19% to 104,000 viewers and late news fell 13%, to 132,000 viewers, for the first four days of this week compared with the same period last week. The ratings for "Under the Dome" were down 32% this week from last week.
The New York CBS station WCBS-TV has also experienced some declines, but nothing at the level of Dallas or Los Angeles. The WCBS-TV 6 p.m news has even managed to grow its audience this week. However, the 11 p.m. news audience was down 17%, averaging 337,000 viewers.
CBS also owns KCAL-TV Channel 9, which counts on Dodger games and local news for ratings. Although the red-hot Dodgers are still a draw, KCAL's news ratings have taken a big hit since Time Warner Cable stopped carrying the station.
Given the reach of Time Warner Cable in those markets, a decrease in ratings was to be expected. Peter Dunn, president of the CBS Television Stations unit, said nobody at the network was hitting the panic button yet.
"I have no problem with the performance we've had in the past week since this Time Warner Cable thing started," Dunn said.
Advertisers are paying close attention to the situation. The blackout is coming at a bad time for some local advertisers that are promoting back-to-school retail sales and end-of-model-year car clearance sales.
"It impacts regular local market advertisers by effectively reducing the reach that their campaigns are having during the blackout period," said Cathleen Campe, a senior vice president at RPA ad agency in Santa Monica. "The advertiser either takes the hit and hopes for make up later (when it might not matter as much) or pay higher costs to reallocate ads to other stations at the last minute."
If the blackout drags on, the CBS TV stations could find themselves having to provide additional commercial time to make up for ratings shortfalls. So far, though, Dunn said that has not been an issue.
CBS executives say the blackout is having little effect on the network's national ratings. Through Thursday of this week, the network said it was down just 0.2% in viewers and flat in the coveted 18-to-49 age demographic.
Much of that good fortune can be attributed to "Under the Dome" and the reality show "Big Brother," both of which have boosted the network's ratings this summer.
Meanwhile, Time Warner Cable is getting heat from customers angry about not having the channel.
"I am thinking about my relationship with Time Warner Cable," said Stanley Steinberg of Thousand Oaks. "I really do miss 'The Late Show' and 'The Late Late Show.'"
On Friday, Mignon Clyburn, the interim chairwoman of the Federal Communications Commission, expressed frustration at Time Warner Cable and CBS about the situation. However, typically the FCC has shown little interest in getting in the middle of these situations, and there is much doubt that the regulatory agency can have much sway in a business dispute.
"In the past, FCC officials have expressed skepticism that they have the authority to order interim carriage during broadcast retransmission-consent battles, and we don't expect that stance to change for now," wrote Christopher C. King, an analyst with Stifel, Nicolaus & Co. "Its ability to resolve specific disagreements over the price and packaging of programming is limited, and most likely would be subject to protracted procedural mechanisms."
Dunn said CBS wants to get the matter resolved as quickly as possible.
As for Letterman, he must be clairvoyant: He is scheduled to be on vacation next week as well.