TV Viewership Down After Writers' Strike

Posted on May 7, 2008

Since the writers' strike ended, television shows have not been rebounding to their previous viewership levels. In fact, top television shows' ratings are plummeting. Once reason proposed is that no one knew when their shows were back, so they never tuned back in.
Spring has sprung leaks in big-network lineups. Ratings shortfalls for some top series have sparked Hollywood hand-wringing on the eve of next week's fall schedule announcements. Such shows as ER, CSI: Miami, My Name Is Earl, The Simpsons and Supernatural hit all-time lows in recent weeks, and others -- including Grey's Anatomy and Cold Case -- are down sharply from last spring.

Some observers blame the writers' strike, which forced a three-month gap in most scripted series and led viewers to stray. Most series have trickled back but without the usual marketing fanfare. "I'm not convinced people realized their shows were back," says ABC prime-time research chief Larry Hyams. "It's not like there was a premiere week" that lured them.

Strike-hobbled scripted series weren't the only ones to lose ground. American Idol, Survivor and Deal or No Deal did, too, part of the typical ratings erosion as series age. "There has been significant slippage compared to normal series averages," says ad buyer John Rash of Campbell-Mithun in Minneapolis. "What's difficult to discern is if this is a post-strike media malaise that will be corrected" next fall.

But it's not as if viewers abandoned TV. Nielsen data show overall viewership is flat or up slightly from last spring. Instead, more people are watching cable. And more of them are recording shows on DVRs, now in 24% of homes, up from 16% last spring. More than 2 million Grey's viewers 10% of its total audience now watch the show one to seven days after it airs.
We think viewership will rebound in the fall -- so long as there are some interesting new shows. But we also think people are watching their favorite shows online. For example, on Friday afternoons every hour on the hour, you can watch the livestream of that night's episode of Battlestar Galactica on Scifi.com for free. You watch 80% less commercials, it's in HD, and best of all - it makes the time you were supposed to be working just breeze by. Mark it down as research for your next science fiction novel,