CBS looking to script solid return

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Scripted television is back on.

After months of broadcast networks airing mostly repeats and reality shows, the dramas and comedies shut down by the writers strike finally are trickling back to the air.

CBS' comedy block is the first group of fall shows to return. Fresh episodes of "The Big Bang Theory," "How I Met Your Mother" and "Two and a Half Men" will run tonight for the first time since November.

The 100-day strike halted scripted television productions and sent most broadcast networks into a ratings recession. On Mondays, competition has been so scarce that reruns of "Men" are often the second-highest rated show of the night.

Still, few expect audience levels to instantly rebound to their previous marks.

"We're certainly excited to have some shows back, but I don't think we'll be at full strength right away," one CBS executive said. "It's going to take awhile for people to realize original programming is back."

Networks are running ads to alert viewers that their favorite shows are returning, but recent ratings trends suggest broadcasters face an uphill battle. The rising popularity of DVRs, the Internet and video games wreaked havoc on TV shows that take midseason breaks.

"There will be a ratings fall-off due to the continued growth of DVRs," predicted Brad Adgate, senior vp at Horizon Media. "And perhaps the strike may have altered viewing patterns and will cause the networks to lose some share points, similar to what occurs during the summer."

Writer-producer Chuck Lorre is behind two of the shows coming back tonight, "Men" and "Big Bang." When the strike ended last month, he and other showrunners had to work overtime to crank out new episodes.

But Lorre assured that any production scrambling hasn't hurt the creative process.

"The quality of the shows is right where I want them," he said. "I'm exhausted, but I don't think we went too quickly."

The stakes are high for the returning comedies. "Mother" is on the bubble for a renewal, though a guest appearance by Britney Spears on next week's episode is expected to boost tune-in.

"Big Bang" was a fall freshman show derailed by the strike at an inopportune moment, just as the series was hitting its creative and ratings stride. Several other new shows are in the same boat yet are not returning until fall (such as NBC's "Chuck" and ABC's "Pushing Daisies"). An inordinate drop in "Big Bang" viewership could signal trouble ahead for these lesser-known primetime titles.

Lorre said he doesn't have much time to ponder his shows' ratings performance.

"We're against stiff competition, but I'm very proud of the work we've done," he said.

That competition includes ABC's top-rated unscripted show "Dancing With the Stars," which also kicks off a new edition tonight. Some reality efforts, such as NBC's "The Biggest Loser" and Fox's "The Moment of Truth," have thrived during the strike, but the return of dramas and comedies could dent their future ratings.

Next week, CBS' "CSI: Miami" and "Cold Case" come back to the air. The first week of April, CBS' "Criminal Minds," "CSI," "Without a Trace," "Ghost Whisperer" and NBC's "My Name Is Earl" return. Most fall shows will be back on the air by the end of April.

"There's been a pent-up anticipation for the top shows from fall," said Jeff Bader, executive vp scheduling at ABC. "So hopefully they'll all come back to a healthy number."
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