The Games also cause scheduling headaches for the cablers. As USA's Linhart told me, when a network has a slate of hit shows running in the summer, it's tough to shut everything down for a sporting event, and it's even harder to bring the audience back when it's over. USA, which is part of NBCUniversal, hasn't yet announced its Olympic plans, but back when USA broadcast U.S. Open tennis, Linhart says, "We had to take a break of two or three weeks, and we would see that the numbers for the next [episode after the hiatus] would be low, because people weren't really aware that the show was back."
Apart from the Olympics, there are other signs that summer habits might be changing. According to the Los Angeles Times, 58 percent of U.S. homes watched prime-time television in August 2011, up from 56 percent in August 2009. Some of the change is surely driven by all that new cable content, but there is a technological component, too. Patricia McDonough, senior vice president of planning policy and analysis at Nielsen, told me that increasing adoption of DVRs — about half of U.S. households now have one — means the summer ratings dip is less pronounced than in the past: "At 8 o'clock we may still be outdoors, but by 9 or 10, we may be in and watching programming. Now we don't have to miss our favorite show if it's on at 8, because we can DVR it and watch it when we get back."
And it's not just DVRs. TV catch-up service Hulu has announced 10 original or exclusive programs that will unspool over the summer. What's more, as of 2012, most mobile phones are smartphones, which means viewers can take their TV habits beyond the living room. "If I'm out in the backyard barbecuing, I can still be watching the ball game. So the television is going with us this year probably more than ever before, and that's a trend that will continue," says McDonough. Right now, TV networks can't sell advertising against that al fresco viewing, because it doesn't show up in the standard Nielsen ratings, but the company has recently established a smartphone panel and other cross-platform measurements, so that may soon change.