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Networks feeling the impact of writers strike

As broadcast networks head into the February sweeps period, the prolonged writers strike is starting to be felt in prime-time ratings.Viewership on ABC, CBS, NBC and Fox was down 9 percent during the first four weeks of the year compared with 2007. CBS and ABC were particularly hard-hit as the stockpile of episodes for favorite shows was depleted. (Msnbc.com is a joint venture between Microsoft an
/ Source: The Associated Press

As broadcast networks head into the February sweeps period, the prolonged writers strike is starting to be felt in prime-time ratings.

Viewership on ABC, CBS, NBC and Fox was down 9 percent during the first four weeks of the year compared with 2007. CBS and ABC were particularly hard-hit as the stockpile of episodes for favorite shows was depleted. (Msnbc.com is a joint venture between Microsoft and NBC Universal.)

During a Super Bowl week dominated by Fox, neither ABC, CBS nor NBC was able to average above 7 million viewers last week, according to Nielsen Media Research. During the same week last year, average viewership for the three networks that didn’t carry the Super Bowl ranged from 7.4 million to 11.4 million.

“The strike has definitely had a detrimental effect on the ratings,” said Marc Berman, an analyst for Mediaweek. “All of the shows that people watch every week and that they are into aren’t there anymore.”

The typical prime-time viewer probably didn’t even realize there was a strike until after the holidays, said Alan Wurtzel, NBC research chief.

Now it is becoming obvious.

Taking big hits

CBS has taken the toughest hit, with its audience shrinking 22 percent from year to year. Analysts said CBS appeared to do the least to prepare for the strike. CBS said it purposely held back some of its contingency programming — another season of “Big Brother,” a network airing of the Showtime hit “Dexter” — for February.

ABC began a partial season of “Lost” episodes last week, drawing 16.1 million viewers for the premiere. It was the most popular show last week that didn’t air on Fox. ABC also had a promising 11.7 million viewers for the debut of “Eli Stone.”

NBC has weathered the storm fairly well, losing only 4 percent of its viewers so far this year. Among the youthful demographic it craves, NBC has the best year-to-year record. Alternative series such as “Celebrity Apprentice,” “American Gladiators” and “The Biggest Loser” have led the way.

That hasn’t necessarily made the advertising community happy.

“If you think of the shows they are putting on instead, and we all remember when NBC stood for quality programming and upscale viewers, these shows are anything but,” said Shari Anne Brill, programming director at the Madison Avenue firm Carat.

Wurtzel said NBC would love to be able to choose from many options including scripted and alternative series. That’s not an option now, he said.

Things will get ‘grimmer’

Although there is talk that striking writers may be close to a deal to return, the lag in production means it may not be until April when scripted programs return with new episodes. And that’s if everything goes right.

“It’s going to get grimmer and grimmer,” Berman said. “The viewers are going to get more disgusted by what’s on the air and stop watching. It’s like the summer now. It’s summer in winter. The schedules are all full of reality and repeats.”

With nearly four months of “American Idol” on the way, Fox has the most to look forward to this spring.

Led by the Super Bowl and its record viewership of 97.4 million, Fox had a dominating week last week. A special post-game episode of “House” attracted 29 million viewers, and Fox has already scheduled a rerun for a week from this Friday.

Fox averaged 33.6 million viewers in prime-time last week (16.4 rating, 26 share). CBS led the also-rans with 6.9 million viewers (4.7, 7), while ABC had 6.7 million and NBC had 6.4 million (both 4.2, 7). The CW had 2.2 million (1.4, 2), My Network TV had 13.3 million (0.9, 1) and ION Television had 570,000 (0.4, 1).

Among the Spanish-language networks, Univision averaged 3.4 million viewers (1.7 rating, 3 share), Telemundo had 1.2 million (0.6, 1), TeleFutura had 650,000 (0.3, 1) and Azteca had 180,000 (0.1, 0).

NBC’s “Nightly News” won the evening news ratings race, averaging 9.7 million viewers, while ABC’s “World News” had 9.4 million (both 6.5 rating, 12 share). The “CBS Evening News” had 7.2 million (5, 9).

A ratings point represents 1,128,000 households, or 1 percent of the nation’s estimated 112.8 million TV homes. The share is the percentage of in-use televisions tuned to a given show.