Writers' strike means rough going for TV networks

Viewership drops, and networks aren't able to deliver on advertisers' expectations. But will the strike be settled soon?

With the Hollywood writers' strike at the three-months mark, TV networks are scrambling to fill the void of new programming, primarily with new game and reality shows. But even those moves appear to be coming up short: Ratings at the five major broadcast networks dropped a collective 17 percent from the same week a year ago in the networks' most prized demographic, viewers between the ages of 18 and 49, according to new Nielsen Media Research.

Viewer defection is bad enough, but this is a pocketbook issue for the networks, which will have to reimburse advertisers for the ads they purchased on the basis of higher estimated audience size.

"Even with a strike audience, the networks will still draw huge numbers, so you won't see a mass advertiser defection," says John Consoli, senior editor of Media Week magazine. "But the networks will fall short. They'll have to give 'make goods,' or free ads back to the advertisers, which is inventory they can't sell."

But networks are running out of "make goods," forcing them to pay out of their own pockets. In December, NBC started to reimburse advertisers for the drop in its fourth-quarter ratings, an average of $500,000 per company, according to a recent Media Week article by Mr. Consoli.

Late last week, however, hopes rose that the strike could be resolved soon: Negotiations between the striking writers and studios had made notable progress, and a tentative deal could be reached this week, according to wire-service reports, citing unnamed sources.

For now, however, networks are trying to fill the midseason slump. With last month's start of a new season of "American Idol," Fox became the ratings front-runner, leading other networks to consider airing more reality programming.

"January is the first month where the strike has really affected prime-time TV for the broadcast networks," Consoli says. "They have to give viewers fresh programming, and the only way they can do that is with reality shows."

The CW Network hopes its midseason lineup of reality programs, including "Beauty and the Geek," will increase its viewership. "Being a small network that targets a younger audience, we always plan to have a lot of reality in our midseason offerings," says Paul McGuire, executive vice president of communications for The CW Network. "We think this time is a good opportunity for us to get some new eyeballs and sampling from viewers."

Viewers won't be happy with reality programming for long, though, says Jonathan Taplin, a University of Southern California communications professor and a pop-culture expert. "The strike is really beginning to bite. You can't just put on reruns and reality shows and expect to maintain the same rating levels," he said. "Networks need to get back to scripted shows as soon as possible."

The big question on the minds of TV execs and analysts is whether viewers will return after the strike is settled. A recent survey by media agency Carat found that 90 percent of TV viewers are aware of the strike, a statistic that Consoli says will help the writers' case. "The fact that so many people know about the strike means that viewers will be more understanding that there is no new fresh programming," he says. "So I don't think it will make a difference in the viewers when new shows come back."

In fact, says Professor Taplin, TV watchers will be eager enough for new content that ratings will revive once the strike is settled. "People will be so grateful for new scripted shows that they will tune back in," he says.

The strike certainly hasn't affected the loyalty of fans like Alexis Sexauer, who gathered with 20 friends to celebrate the long-delayed season première of "Lost" on Jan. 31. And missing a few months of her other favorite shows won't make her tune in any less, she says.

"Shows like 'Lost' help bridge the gap during the strike, but I still need variety," Ms. Sexauer says. "I am interested in the story lines I was watching. I want to know what happens."

However, entertainment website coordinator Brian Sheehan plans to change his viewing habits after the strike. "This time has given me the opportunity to think about whether the shows I am watching have any real value," he says. "If there's nothing good on a Tuesday night, I'll find something else to do with my time."

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