Earlier Prime Time May Spread in West

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The decision by two San Francisco TV stations to advance prime time ahead one hour--to a 7 p.m. start--is likely to have a domino effect upon other stations on the West Coast, according to local broadcasters.

Earlier this week, CBS affiliate KPIX-TV and NBC affiliate KRON-TV announced that changes in lifestyles and viewing habits had persuaded the stations to shift the networks' prime-time schedules to the 7 p.m. to 10 p.m. time slot from their customary 8 p.m. to 11 p.m. period.

The shifts--to take effect Feb. 8 at KPIX-TV and near that date for KRON-TV--follow a decision last September by Sacramento NBC affiliate KCRA-TV to conduct an eight-month experiment with an earlier prime time. Officials at the San Francisco stations called the results from KCRA-TV's experiment encouraging.

For viewers, an earlier prime time means that there could be fewer game shows and tabloid shows in the early evening. It also could lead to expanded one-hour local news programs at 10 p.m. on affiliates, similar to those already produced by independent stations.

For the producers of syndicated programs--from "Wheel of Fortune" to "A Current Affair"--the switch is likely to mean fewer sales and, eventually, production of fewer programs for the early evening viewing period.

"It's inevitable," says Barry Barth, vice president and general manager of KREM-TV, the NBC affiliate in Spokane, Wash., noting that 20 of NBC's 22 West Coast affiliates have indicated that they favor an earlier prime time. "We need to put our programming where the viewers are."

And, he might add, where the money is. Squeezed by rising program costs, eroding audiences and weak advertising demand, profit margins at local TV stations are shrinking at an alarming rate--from more than 40% to about 20%, even at the best-run stations.

Los Angeles TV viewers are unlikely to see a prime-time shift in the immediate future, however. The networks--which own KABC, KCBS and KNBC--are against moving prime time ahead one hour because they fear that it will accelerate the erosion of their nationwide audience. For the networks, smaller audiences already are making it more difficult to attract advertising.

Broadcasters say that moving up the 11 p.m. local news to 10 p.m. should result in higher viewing levels--which, in turn, command higher ad rates. The 11 p.m. local news can account for up to 15% of a station's revenue.

But officials at KPIX-TV and KRON-TV in San Francisco said the primary reason for the shift in prime time was changes over the last 15 years in the habits of television viewers.

"Viewers are telling us they are watching TV earlier and going to sleep earlier," said Carolyn Wean, vice president and general manager of KPIX-TV. "These are social issues."

Wean and other broadcasters contend that the rise of the dual-working-parent household along with a trend among TV's prime audience--adults age 25 to 54--to start families later mean that people are spending less time in front of the tube late at night.

Both the networks and West Coast affiliates have been looking closely at the ratings of KCRA-TV since the Sacramento station began experimenting with an earlier prime time this fall. Affiliates in the Central and Mountain time zones traditionally have run prime-time programming an hour earlier than those on the East and West coasts, with no adverse effect on the networks.

Jon S. Kelly, president of KCRA-TV, said his station's 10 p.m. to 10:35 p.m. local news beats every competing network program opposite it except CBS' "Northern Exposure" on Monday nights and ABC's "20/20" on Friday nights.

"That to me is a big deal," he said.

Syndicators who sell game shows and talk shows to local stations are worried about the earlier prime time because "it limits the available time periods for our product," said Bruce Johansen, vice president of Multimedia Entertainment, which produces and distributes the "Donahue" and "Sally Jesse Raphael" shows.

Johansen noted that a syndicator can get double the money for a show broadcast in the high-viewing "access" time period before prime time than one televised late at night or in daytime.

Until 1975, prime time began at 7:30 p.m. and was the launching pad for such hit shows as "The Beverly Hillbillies" and "My Three Sons." Subsequently, the government imposed regulations prohibiting the networks from scheduling programs in the hour before prime time.

The rules were intended to foster production of local TV news and current events programs. Instead, they gave impetus to the syndication industry and a slew of look-alike game shows, tabloid-magazine shows and talk shows.

The regulations also prevented production companies--mostly the major Hollywood studios--from selling reruns of prime-time shows to local stations for the hour preceding prime time. The studios want the ban repealed so they can sell more reruns in that time period--at higher licensing fees than for other periods.

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