Primetime sweep weathers writers strike storm



NEW YORK -- While its effect on the industry has been profound, the writers strike has only had a slight impact on the November sweep.

Some networks have rejigged parts of their schedule as originals for some key shows dry up, while other programs have been stretched to last as long as they can.

Three weeks into the sweep, only the late-night talk shows have been hit hard. Ratings for NBC's "The Tonight Show With Jay Leno" and CBS' "Late Show With David Letterman," among others, are feeling the pinch.

"There hasn't been any impact with the strike (in primetime)," said Brad Adgate, senior vp research at New York-based media agency Horizon Media.

Fox is the only network in the November sweep that has seen an increase in the key adults 18-49 demographic compared with last year. ABC, which leads the pack with a 3.6 rating, is down 18% year-over-year. CBS (3.5) is down 13%. Fox, which is in third place, has a 3.3 rating and is up 18%, while NBC has slipped to fourth place with an average 3.2 rating thanks to some lower-rated "Sunday Night Football" matchups.

Only Fox has made its long-term strike contingency plans known, built primarily around the return of "American Idol" and a few new series additions, including "Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles."

"Fox is probably in the best shape because its strength has always been in midseason and having 'American Idol,' which can easily be extended," said Shari Anne Brill, senior vp at New York-based ad buyer Carat.

But even Fox has a few shows on strike-imposed hiatus, including its biggest non-"Idol" hit, "House," as well as the sitcoms "Back to You" and " 'Til Death."

CBS has been quietly making adjustments to its schedule. "CSI: Crime Scene Investigation" was a repeat a few weeks back, and the new sitcom "The Big Bang Theory" has run out of original episodes and began its repeats Monday. The same will happen next week to "Rules of Engagement," though "How I Met Your Mother" and "Two and a Half Men" will be in originals.

CBS also has made a decision to take originals of "Criminal Minds" and "CSI: NY" out of tonight's lineup to save them for later in the season. That should work well because Thanksgiving Eve generally has lower Households Using Television levels anyway. A longer-term plan, which also might be affected by a threatened CBS News employees strike, has yet to be announced.

ABC hasn't made any major changes in the November sweep other than to move the premiere of the new Tuesday drama "Cashmere Mafia" from the end of November to January. The network, too, will run out of original episodes of two shows soon after Thanksgiving: "Private Practice" on Dec. 5 and "Pushing Daisies" on Dec. 12. Most of the rest of the shows are scheduled -- with the usual load of repeats and holiday programming -- to last into January. An announcement about ABC's plans poststrike, if it continues that long, likely will occur next week.

NBC already has lost "The Office," one of the first scripted series to shut down production. Its other big hit, "Heroes," is finishing up its 11-straight episode run Dec. 3. A two-hour episode of the freshman "Life," which had been planned for tonightWednesday, instead will be split into two parts airing on different nights: Monday in the post-"Heroes" 10 p.m. slot occupied by "Journeyman" and its regular 10 p.m. Wednesday period.

"We're not holding back for January," said Vince Manze, president of scheduling at NBC.

There's a fine line between keeping existing programs in reserve and letting them run to their natural hiatus points, Manze said. "You take your chances if you're taking off a new show, especially," he said. "We're gaining momentum with a show like 'Chuck.' Do you want to hold it back or get as many fans as possible?"

While Manze declined to outline NBC's plans -- that probably will come after Thanksgiving -- he said that the network will have just as many original hours of programming as it would have had in the first quarter without a strike. Programs in the mix include "Friday Night Lights," "Las Vegas," "Law & Order," "Chuck," "ER" and "Scrubs." It also includes USA's "Law & Order: Criminal Intent," to which NBC retained second-window rights, and "The Apprentice," slated to air Thursday nights, where it will sub for two of NBC's comedy series.

With studio executives and the WGA heading back to the negotiating table Monday, chances are the networks might not have to implement any of their strike-contingency plans. But if talks fall through, the effects of the strike soon will become visible onscreen.

Brill, along with others on Madison Avenue, aren't as concerned about the November sweep or even December and January (with its high percentage of repeats and holiday-themed programming) as she is about the February sweep.

"When you're going to start to run into problems is February," Brill said. "The question becomes: Are the networks going to have what they need to run into February to help their local stations?"