New season, old woe for nets up north

Viewership down for Canada's CTV, Canwest

TORONTO -- Canada's broadcast networks aren't raising the alarm just yet, but the new fall season has done nothing to stem the loss of primetime viewers.

TV viewership in English-speaking Canada, where U.S. series dominate schedules, is down year-over-year by about 6%, according to market-leading networks CTV and Canwest Broadcasting. But both nets are putting a positive spin on the early returns.

"People should not panic. It's not like (primetime audiences) are down a lot," CTV chief Susanne Boyce said Wednesday.

"We'd have liked it to have grown," echoed Barb Williams, senior vp programming and production at rival Canwest. "The conventional has drifted, but there's both some interest in new shows and pretty solid strength in returning shows."

As in past years, it's returning U.S. series that continue to connect with Canadian viewers. Primetime ratings leader CTV has done its best numbers with simulcasts of ABC series including "Grey's Anatomy" and "Desperate Housewives" and CBS' "CSI," which runs at 8 p.m. Thursdays, an hour before airing in the U.S.

Canwest's Global Television, meanwhile, has done well with Fox's "House" on Tuesdays and CBS' "Survivor: Gabon" on Thursdays.

The fall 2008 season here also has turned into a dogfight for younger demos.

CTV insists that it has drawn young viewers away from Global, which touts itself as the hot network in the 18-49 demo, on the strength of a 4% jump for "Grey's Anatomy," a 15% rise for both "CSI" and "CSI: Miami" and a 8% jump for NBC's "ER."

Canwest's Williams sees no such drift.

"We don't see any evidence at all of any shifting away of 18-49 audience from our core properties over to theirs," she said, referencing such top-performing Canwest series as "Family Guy," "Prison Break," "The Simpsons," "Heroes" and "Bones."

Slumping numbers for U.S. series this fall also have allowed openings for local fare. The top-rated Canadian primetime show this season is CTV's "So You Think You Can Dance Canada," and the network's Thursday night cop drama "Flashpoint" has performed in reverse simulcast on CBS stateside.

The Canadians also attribute the year-on-year viewership loss to disruption from the Hollywood writers strike, which played havoc with recent purchases of U.S. series, and pre-emptions caused by the Canadian and U.S. election coverage and the recent World Series on Fox.