For the networks, season didn't rate
Strike, DVRs drove numbers to record lows
Before the strike even hit, the season launched with worrisome news: Hit shows were returning down an average of about 8% in the ratings from the previous year. Yet as the weeks ticked by, some networks still had positive stories to tell. Fox was gaining traction in the fall and ABC's new shows were finding fans.
"The season got off to a very good start, but what ended up happening was like a car that started picking up speed and then ran into a wall," said Bill Carroll, director of programming at Katz Television Group.
As the season rolled over into 2008, NBC countered the strike with a surge of reality programming. "The Biggest Loser: Couples," a celebrity edition of "The Apprentice" and the debut of "American Gladiators" initially proved effective counter-strike programming.
And once the walkout concluded, there were more upbeat headlines as CBS enjoyed record ratings for the return of its Monday night comedy block. The numbers suggested that, just maybe, things weren't so bad after all.
But then as full schedules returned to the air, viewers held back. Such returning hit dramas as ABC's "Grey's Anatomy" and CBS' "CSI: Crime Scene Investigation" hit record lows, with programs with serialized elements being hit especially hard.
Only once networks entered the May sweep did the damage of the strike and fractured viewing become clear: Networks were down double digits during the sweep despite running at full steam on most nights. Even major fare like Fox's "American Idol" were showing clear erosion, with the reality hit down about 10%.
With DVR penetration at 24% (compared with 15% last year), the story improves slightly when looking at the full season and factoring seven days of viewing per show. But not by much.
"The most difficult network television season ever," said John Rash, senior vp at Campbell Mithun. "Every network needs to work so that it doesn't get worse for next year. Almost all are betting the dizzying decline in ratings was the result of the writers strike and not a more fundamental shift away from broadcast."
Wrapping up the season, reality-fueled Fox won by a wide margin based on most current returns (11 million average viewers, 4.2 adults 18-49 rating/ 11 share). Fox managed a 5% increase among adults 18-49 this season, partly thanks to airing the Super Bowl, and is expected to win among every major demographic.
Fox is followed by CBS (10.5 million, 3.0/8), down 19% in the demo; ABC (9.2 million, 3.0/8) is down 14%; NBC (8.1 million, 2.8/8) is down 10%; and the CW network (2.6 million, 1.1/3) is down 15%.
Part of the issue is that broadcast viewers are going to cable. Nielsen audience levels show there's just as many viewers watching television programming as last year, if not a little more, and that ad-supported cable is enjoying double-digit overall gains.
The odd, downbeat year made renewing shows especially difficult. A 2.0 rating was the new 3.0 this season; several shows are returning when in previous years that performance would have earned them the heave-ho. ABC's "Oprah's Big Give" (11.2 million, 3.9) was the highest-ranking show that doesn't have a return planned, though ABC has said that production company Harpo elected not to have a second run.
Of the outright canceled shows, NBC's "Bionic Woman" averaged the highest (9.8 million, 4.0). Network-swapping comedy "Scrubs" (6.3 million, 3.3) finished the season with a higher rating than fellow NBC comedy companions "30 Rock" (6.4 million, 3.1) and "My Name Is Earl" (7.3 million, 3.1).
Although "Idol" fell in the ratings this season (Tuesday: 28.8 million, 11.2), it still finished as the top show and managed a finale that matched last year's conclusion (31.7 million, 11.4).
Moreover, Fox put the "Idol" lead-in power to good use, driving two reality shows into the top 10 shows for the season — freshman series "The Moment of Truth" and the in-season run of "Hell's Kitchen" (11.9 million, 5.5).
Other shows were pushed back until next fall without a spring run — including such freshman series as NBC's "Chuck" (8.7 million, 3.5) and ABC's "Private Practice" (10.8 million, 4.0). NBC's "Heroes" (13.1 million, 6.2) was the highest-rated show in the demo that the strike pushed all the way until next season.
The push-backs are on the front line of questions about the lasting impact of the current season. With several second-chance shows populating the fall schedule rather than new offerings, TV historian Tim Brooks said the most significant impact of the current season may still be to come.
"This fall will be the leanest season of new programs, perhaps ever," Brooks said. "Networks are reducing their chances for a comeback or stabilization by not putting more on the shelf. What broadcast really needs is the next 'House,' the next 'Idol.' "
Another factor is whether viewers will return to last year's truncated freshman crop. Will audiences watch shows they barely remember?
"The shows will create a challenge for networks to reintroduce them to the public without the abundant free media that usually accompanies new programs," Rash said. "This is uncharted territory." (partialdiff)