With the writers' strike reducing the quantity and quality of new output, the networks are re-evaluating.
A new TV season in the US traditionally brings broadcasters the promise of high ratings and strong advertising revenue. After the writers' strike earlier this year, networks needed an injection of viewers and dollars like never before.
The three-month-long dispute brought the production of popular scripted shows to a halt and prompted audiences to migrate from broadcast channels into the content-rich world of multichannel and online TV.
Come the autumn and the revamped schedules have failed to lure them back. Audiences are down across the leading networks - NBC, CBS, Fox and ABC - and the average price of a 30-second spot in primetime has slumped by 4.1 per cent. Rather than getting the channels back on track, the new season seems to be compounding a downward trend in viewing.
Due to the writers' strike, the US networks had fewer shows to launch in September. Where most channels kick off the TV season with up to ten new programmes each, this year some have had as few as two fresh series to put on air.
Even though it is in short supply, most of this new content has not enticed viewers back to the small screen. For every success, such as the new drama from the Lost creator JJ Abrams, Fringe, and its 9.1 million debut audience, there has been a slew of disappointments.
NBC's eagerly anticipated remake of Knight Rider, for one, only captured a lowly 7.4 million on its debut. Even the channel's solid banker, Heroes, has been hit by a 28 per cent drop. NBC is not alone. ABC, for example, saw low audiences for the returning series Dirty Sexy Money, Private Practice and Pushing Daisies.
Overall, the main broadcast networks saw an average of nine million people tuning in for primetime programming at the start of this season. This translates into a 4.3 per cent drop compared with the first week of the 2007 TV season, according to Nielsen Media Research.
The fall was most noticeable among the sought-after 18-49 demographic. Figures from the media agency TargetCast TCM reveal that viewership was down by around 10 per cent in this particular group.
The networks have attributed this slow start to a variety of factors, from a lack of awareness about the new TV schedules to the impact of digital video recorders and frenzied interest in the race for the White House.
"I just don't think the general audience was ready, prepared or aware that broadcast TV was back with new season premieres," Peter Liguori, the chairman of entertainment for the Fox Broadcasting Company, says.
The Fox network saw the in-roads made by DVRs firsthand as its new drama Fringe was watched by 2.2 million people - or a sixth of its total audience - on DVR, rather than during its broadcast time slot. "More people have DVRs now and when they have them, they like them," Kelly Kahl, the senior executive vice-president of primetime at CBS, says.
At MediaVest, John Spiropoulos, the vice-president of group research, sees many new series' failure as inevitable. "TV is a very patterned medium and new shows don't have built-in patterns," he says. "They are not proven commodities so they don't get the prices that returning shows get."
New shows are also unproven commodities that, thanks to the writers' strike, fewer US viewers want to see. During the dispute, which stretched from November 2007 to February this year, many Americans changed their TV habits. In a survey of 1,000 people by the media consultancy Interpret LLC, 27 per cent of respondents said they were watching less network TV due to the dispute.
"There is a tremendous amount of fragmentation and there continues to be a shift of viewing away from traditional broadcast channels to cable channels," Rino Scanzoni, the chairman of Media- edge:cia in New York, says.
He partly attributes this fragmentation to increasing consumer choice. "In the US right now, the average household has over 100 channels available to view," he points out. He also maintains that audiences are migrating to cable due to the broadcast networks' taste for serialised drama such as Lost or 24.
"In the last couple of years, a lot of entertainment fare has been scripted and that requires a fair amount of consistent viewing," Scanzoni explains. "If viewers miss a few episodes of a show, they feel disenfranchised and move away to programmes that are more amply available on cable."
The writers' strike certainly accentuated this shift and gave the ad industry cause for concern at the height of the dispute. "The decline in viewing did push up short-term pricing by 25 to 40 per cent," Scanzoni says. "We also had less programming we could evaluate at the upfront presentations in May."
Although the price of a 30- second spot fell by 4.1 per cent to $130,089 during the 2007 to 2008 season, broadcasters did not come away from the upfronts, where the networks present their new content to advertisers every May, empty-handed.
"People are willing to pay more despite the shrinking audiences," Chris Coelen, the chief executive of the production company RDF USA, says. "Where else are you going to get an aggregated audience?"
Many even believe that the strike will have long-term benefits for the TV and ad industries. "The TV season is really archaic and the strike has forced the pace of change," Spiropoulos claims. "All new programming runs from September to May and then it's repeats all summer long. The writers' strike has forced the broadcasters to programme and develop their shows in a year-round strategy."
Scanzoni is equally positive about the benefits of the dispute. "The strike is forcing programmes to be presented in a staggered formation," he says. "It's a good thing long term because shows are not all going up against each other." Contrary to expectation, the dispute's lasting legacy to the TV business may turn out to be balanced, rather than empty, schedules.