Can TV MDs cure strike hangover?

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When CBS' Monday night block returned from hiatus to set record ratings last month, the industry exhaled a collective sigh of relief. The production hiatus voodoo of the writers strike seemingly had no impact; fans had been patiently waiting for their favorite shows to return and flooded back without a hitch.

One month later, the Nielsen ratings tell a different story, one that heavily suggests a strike hangover: Most broadcast shows that have returned in the weeks since CBS' Monday lineup snapped the fall scripted series drought have suffered double-digit decreases from their pre-strike averages: ABC's "Desperate Housewives" (off 33% among adults 18 to 49), NBC's "ER" (down 24%) and CBS' "CSI: NY" (off 12%), among others.

The numbers set the stage for the first night of the May sweep led by tonight's highly anticipated return of "Grey's Anatomy" along with "Ugly Betty." With serialized dramas among the hardest hit since the strike ended, all eyes will be on ABC to see if its top-rated drama "Grey's" can return at full strength.

Jeff Bader, ABC's executive vp scheduling, noted the actual performance of returning shows might not be known for weeks because of the lag time collecting DVR data.

"My guess is that many people weren't aware the shows were back, but their DVRs picked them up," he said.

Amid the data so far, one easy lesson for broadcasters to draw on is that if there's ever another writers strike, it's best to get your show's back quick.

Almost all the broadcast series that earned better ratings now than before the strike are part of CBS' Monday lineup: "CSI: Miami" and "Two and a Half Men" are up 10% and "How I Met Your Mother" is a steep 23% ahead. The "Mother" success is noteworthy as the show was considered on the bubble for a renewal. It received a much-needed publicity boost from a visit by Britney Spears and has since retained some of its growth.

"What this shows is that the sooner your recover from a strike the better the chances you have for keeping your viewers," said Rob Yarin, vp programming at Magid Associates.

That conclusion may eventually spell trouble for shows such as NBC's "Heroes" and most freshman dramas interrupted by the strike that won't return until the fall.

Another factor in the data is that Daylight Saving Time tends to drain viewership this time of year anyway, particularly shows airing at 8 p.m. Even with CBS' Monday night block fighting the downward trend, freshman comedy "The Big Bang Theory" is down 11% after being shifted to an earlier time period.

But DST tends to only lower households-using-television levels about 3% overall in the spring. Also, when comparing returning shows to the same period last year instead of to pre-strike, the result is largely the same: Even allowing drops for increased DVR use, most series are down double digits, with CBS' Monday block still showing an increase despite the overall broadcast erosion.

Two series that split the statistical difference are NBC's "The Office" and "Scrubs." Though both are down slightly compared to pre-strike, they are up 20% and 17%, respectively, compared to last year.

Here's why: Both shows are airing in the heavily viewed 9 p.m. hour on Thursdays but haven't yet had any competition from "Grey's." They can thank the strike for that.
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