MINNEAPOLIS (AdAge.com) -- The release of "C3" ratings (commercial ratings based on live viewing and DVR viewing up to three days later) grabbed the industry's headlines. While there are many ways to interpret the data, one transcendent trend remained clear: It's still all about the programming.
By and large, the most-recorded programs approximated the highest live ratings. The degree to which the networks perceive DVRs to be a problem misses what is the true threat to broadcast: irrelevancy or apathy, a human response that is much harder to address than skipping ads. So, as the fall season struggles with a sluggish start, it's a particularly precarious time for what should head next week's headlines -- a possible writers' strike.
Echoing this week's widely watched C3 data dump about new-viewing possibilities, the key issue behind the union talks is mostly about how to compensate scriptwriters based on how viewers will watch in the future, as screens big and small create new programming platforms. The strike could take place right after Halloween, which could haunt network TV, as so many viewers have already drifted away from broadcast, due to keener competition from the cable cornucopia and the self-inflicted programming wounds from network's summer of repeats and reality.
What's a stake
In many ways, a prolonged walkout and disruption of an already crucial TV season could be a situation akin to the Major League Baseball strike of 1994, which brought baseball to the abyss of permanently alienating audiences. But network TV could have an even harder time recovering from a prolonged work stoppage. There is, after all, only one true major league, so longtime fans had to eventually get over their grudges and grudgingly go back to the sport they love. Not so for network TV, which now faces an endless array of digital and cable competition.
A look at this week's top 10 shows just how high the stakes are if writers strike, as scripted series are still the reliable draws. Most of the top 10 were tenured dramas, ones with nuanced characters and serialized stories. In other words, the very kind of shows that are most script-dependent. ABC's "Desperate Housewives," for example, even sacked NBC's "Sunday Night Football" for third place this week, with a 6.5/6 rating and share in the ad-centric adult 18-49 demographic, leading into nineth-place "Brothers and Sisters, (4.2/12), another multi-layered, multi-character show dependent on the pen. This was joined by last night's "Grey's Anatomy" on ABC, which delivered a 7.1/17 in the Nielsen "Fast Affiliate Ratings," officially placing it No. 2 for the week (but tops for a full-length show).
And the crisp, taut scripts of police procedurals such as CBS's "CSI" and NBC's "Law and Order" franchises have helped define this decade as one when dramas were ascendant. This week was no exception, with "CSI" fourth with a 6.4/15 and "CSI: Miami" and NBC's "Law and Order: SVU" tied for seventh with a 4.5/12.
Sports in the top 10
To be sure, the fall will always have highly rated ball games (Nielsen says this week's top telecast was a five-minute CBS foorball post-game show, delivering a 8.5/26, and NBC's "Sunday Night Football" took fifth place with a 4.6/12). And Major League Baseball has recovered enough to see game four of Fox's National League Championship Series win Tuesday with a 3.8/11.
Besides hitting a curveball, perhaps nothing is harder in fall TV than writing a successful sitcom script, so a strike would make it even more difficult to write the seminal sitcom that defines this decade (hurry up -- only three more years left!). The two TV comedies that did make this week's list are a cultural juxtaposition of the more commercial "Two and a Half Men" on CBS, which has become the one bona fide current comedy that will sell well in syndication. Its 4.4/11 tied it for 10th with NBC's "The Office," a sitcom employing a much more sophisticated TV tonality and gaining more critical acclaim.
Of course, if the writers strike the nets will turn to unscripted fare, such as reality TV. But after a summer of reality shows with a "Let's put on a show!" ethos, this is a risky proposition. There are, of course, a few reality series that can be counted on, such as CBS's "Survivor," with the latest version set in China delivering a 4.5/13 for sixth place or ABC's "Dancing with the Stars," which just missed the top 10 with a 12th-place 4.3/11 for the Monday version. But creating enough sustainable series in the regular programming environment has been difficult. Making even more under a strike scenario may be next to impossible.
So, next week's headline could be "Balls and a Strike," as the beginning of the World Series on Fox could coincide with striking writers. And if it's a prolonged, protracted labor battle it could fundamentally alter network TV, leading to a longer-term headline of "Network TV's Whole New Ballgame."
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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. In order to report ratings on a timely basis, all the ratings listed here reflect a Nielsen Live number. (Many ad deals have been negotiated on the basis of a commercial minute, live-plus-3 viewing basis.)
John Rash is senior VP-director of broadcast negotiations for Campbell Mithun, Minneapolis. For daily rating updates, see rashreport.com.