It's hard to come up with an optimistic assessment of the official Nielsen season that ended Wednesday, considering the challenges and ratings reductions that network TV faced. Only Fox improved its ratings, up 2% to a 4.2/11 rating and share in the ad-centric adult 18-49 demographic. (Based on the broadest possible measurement, "live plus 7," which is the metric used in reporting the sweeps and season numbers. Individual program delivery reflects "live plus same day.")
Strike wasn't only setback
Much of the medium's malaise can be chalked up to the winter of discontent, as the Writers Guild of America strike truncated the TV season, and will also influence the next. But the nets' fortunes began to fall along with the leaves, as despite commercial broadcasters spending millions on development and marketing of programs featuring cyborgs like NBC's "Bionic Woman" and masters of the universe like ABC's "Big Shots," it was regular Joes saving the world in PBS's "The War" that was the critical hit of September.
It wasn't until midseason that a breakout hit emerged. But indicative of the mean season, Fox's "Moment of Truth" seemed designed to pull lying families apart, as opposed to bringing them together in front of the set. And it mostly benefited from following "American Idol," which despite having its lowest ratings in seven spectacular seasons, still had the top two shows for the week -- and the year. Tuesday's penultimate program was up 4% over last year, delivering a second-place 10.1/28, while Wednesday's David Cook crowning ruled with an 11.4/30, which was flat from 2007.
Two other Fox hits, "House" (fifth, 5.8/14) and "Hell's Kitchen" (seventh, 5.2/13) helped the network win the May sweeps with a 3.8/11. But indicative of the post-strike malaise still afflicting network TV, that was down 10% from last May.
ABC, with the most ambitious schedule of serialized scripted dramas, was perhaps hurt most by the strike. The interruption in viewing habits is particularly hard for this genre, as witnessed by the 14% and 24% fall for the finales of "Desperate Housewives" (fourth, 6.2/16), and "Grey's Anatomy" (third, 6.9/18 in last night's Nielsen "Fast Affiliate Ratings").
Even reality suffers
The reality genre, conversely, should have benefited from the dearth of scripts, but many series still struggled. The network's "Dancing With the Stars," for instance, still made the Top Ten with its final competition, which toed its way into 10th place with a 4.4/13 for Monday's last dance and into a sixth-place 5.4/14 for Tuesday's Kristi Yamaguchi victory. But this was a 28% and a 16% dip, respectively, from last fall's finales.
These declines were indicative of ABC's sweeps, as the network fell 21% to a 3.1/9. For the season, the 3.0/8 represents a 14% slide.
CBS's scheduling strategy of consistent sitcoms leading into a big drama has been the cornerstone of their Monday night. And now it has programs in this week's list to show for it. The finale for "Two and a Half Men" nearly increased by a third, as the eighth-place 4.8/12 was up 30% from last year. Not so for "CSI: Miami," which fell 15% to a ninth-place 4.5/12. CBS also stumbled this sweeps, dropping an unlucky 13% to a third-place 2.8/8. For the year, CBS declined 19% to a 3.0/8.
NBC would have welcomed such luck. Its 27% sweeps slide to a fourth-place 1.9/5, as well as having no shows in, or even near, this week's Top Ten (the finale for a 17-year-old show, "Law & Order," was the closest it came) told its season's story. All eyes will be on Ben Silverman to see if he can read the public's pulse and rebuild, as next week begins his vaunted 52-week season. For the one just ended, NBC finished fourth, off 10% to a 2.8/8.
Finally, the CW (three words that seemed inseparable this year) fell 15% to a 1.1/3 for both the May sweeps and the season.
Dancing as fast as they can
Up next? The summer season, replete with repeats and reality. Fox already got a head start with last night's debut of "So You Think You Can Dance," which also might be a metaphor for the network executives furiously trying to create content to re-engage audiences --- and by extension, advertisers.
But, true to form, while the "Fast Affiliates" put the 3.4/10 for "So You Think You Can Dance" in an impressive 13th-place tie, the debut was down 8% from last year.
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NOTE: A share is a percentage of TV households that have their TV sets on at a given time. A rating is a percentage of all TV households, whether or not their sets are turned on. For example, a 1.0 rating is 1% of the total U.S. households with a TV. Ratings quoted in this column are based on live plus same day, unless otherwise noted. (Many ad deals have been negotiated on the basis of a commercial minute, live-plus-three-day viewing basis.)
John Rash is senior VP-director of broadcast negotiations for Campbell Mithun, Minneapolis. For more, see rashreport.com.