Viewers Not Rushing Back to Favorite TV Programs

Initial Ratings Show Audience Levels Still Below Pre-Strike Levels

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NEW YORK (AdAge.com) -- Just because your favorite dramas and comedies are back on the air after the writers strike doesn't mean you're necessarily watching them. A preliminary look at ratings of returning programs on the big broadcast networks reveals that the "majority of original programming has failed to return to its pre-strike levels among key demos," according to Havas media-buying shop MPG.

The firm found that audiences are "coming back to some of the shows, but not most of them," said Nina Kanter, VP-director of communications analysis at MPG.

Changes could last
The early performance suggests that in broadcast TV these days, perhaps the best way for advertisers to reach mass audiences in one fell swoop is just a little bit less mass. The study might be seen "as an indicator" that ratings points for network TV "will be smaller next year," Ms. Kanter said.

But MPG's analysis is preliminary. Many network shows still have not returned to the air; ABC's "Grey's Anatomy" is slated to come back next week, and CW's "Gossip Girl" debuts a new episode April 21. So the analysis details program performance without the entirety of the five broadcast networks' offerings in place, and with only one to three new episodes of returning series having aired.

When it comes to ABC's "Samantha Who?" -- an early hit for the Walt Disney Co. network last fall -- average share among audiences aged 18 to 49 declined by one ratings point between pre-strike episodes and one post-strike episode, according to MPG. A new episode of "Desperate Housewives" was off three points among the demo, and MPG saw a two-point drop in share for one post-strike episode of CBS's "NCIS" and two post-strike episodes of CBS's "Numbers."

Schedules have changed
There are legitimate reasons for the ratings declines. Some shows have seen their competition alter as networks rearrange their schedules. CBS's "NCIS" and "Criminal Minds" now face Fox's "American Idol," for instance. Because most networks put the bulk of their marketing spending into promos that run on their own air, it's quite possible that TV audiences, turned off by repeats and strike-replacement programming, didn't get those messages, according to MPG's analysis.

Some returning shows are doing well. NBC's "The Office" and "Scrubs" have demonstrated improved post-strike ratings, MPG said, though both have aired without regular competitor "Grey's Anatomy" on the air. CBS's "How I Met Your Mother" also posted ratings gains compared to its pre-strike performance, but the sitcom may also have benefited from a guest appearance by singer Britney Spears.
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