Hot shows can no longer risk taking a break.
New episodes of a trio of popular serialized dramas—ABC’s “Lost,” CBS’s “Jericho” and NBC’s “Heroes”—returned from a layoff to record-low viewership in recent months, causing industry insiders to question whether ratings rebounds from planned breaks are still feasible in an increasingly competitive marketplace populated by fickle and distracted viewers.
“Everybody’s perception right now is that if you put these highly serialized shows on, you’re going to hurt when you take them off,” said Preston Beckman, executive VP for strategic program planning at Fox. “You’re about to hear a lot of new scheduling plans to deal with that.”
With annual network upfront presentations to advertisers next week, networks are determining scheduling and multimedia strategies to ensure viewers stick with linchpin shows.
ABC executives have stated they plan to run “Lost” straight through next year to avoid any gaps, likely launching in January. Vince Manze, NBC’s president of program planning, scheduling and strategy, said NBC also will announce new scheduling tactics for “Heroes” at its upfront.
“It’s always difficult to get viewers back after a long break, and now it’s even more difficult,” Mr. Manze said. “Our second break for ‘Heroes’ was six weeks and that was too long. We’re going to deal with that.”
The “Heroes” plan still will include a traditional fall premiere and May finale, but it will be aided by some new ideas to keep viewers engaged, he said.
Serialized dramas are not the only shows being rocked by ratings drops after taking a break this year.
Audiences for NBC’s sitcom “My Name Is Earl” fell 20 percent in April after it took off six weeks; viewership of “The Office” fell 14 percent after a five-week break. CBS’ sitcom “The New Adventures of Old Christine” dropped an average of 32 percent in the weeks after returning from a five-week break in March (though it also came back in a weaker time period).
“Television is appointment viewing, and when you cancel the appointment people are not going to show up. That’s what happens when these shows go on extended breaks,” said Rob Yarin, VP of programming at Magid Associates.
One factor that potentially skews the analysis is that most of broadcast television has been in a dramatic ratings slump the past few months. Executives blame a cluster of factors, including increased DVR usage, the early return of Daylight Saving Time and increased availability of programs online.
So could it be that shows with extended breaks simply experienced the same ratings drop they would have had they stayed on the air?
Jeff Bader, ABC’s executive VP of scheduling, said the ratings drain has hit shows equally.
“It’s happening with all shows,” he said. “Shows that went on hiatus are not showing more of a decline than shows that stayed on. Everything is lower now.”
Determining whether a break is responsible for lower ratings is tricky. With programs shifting time periods and repeat patterns varying for most shows, a comparison between programs airing with occasional repeats and those opting for longer breaks quickly becomes fraught with fuzzy math and multiple variables.
For instance: “The Office” and “Earl” took breaks in March and dropped sharply, while companion “30 Rock” stayed in originals and maintained its average. Yet “24,” the poster child for nonstop scheduling, has dropped throughout the season (though, like “Lost,” the show has been widely panned for taking a creative downturn).
Mr. Bader, whose “Lost” endured the loudest media knocks for its hiatus, said he continues to prefer hiatuses over frequent repeats. “I still think it’s better for shows to go off [and] then come back with a longer run of originals,” he said.
In a business where perception is everything, whether hiatuses actually hurt ratings could become secondary to whether advertisers believe they are a problem. Executives agreed the advertising community is looking for new strategies for scheduling series to keep viewers’ attention from wandering.
“The broadcast business model that includes purchasing an original and a repeat of each episode, which results in long hiatus periods, is an anachronism that is increasingly imperiled in the multimedia, multiplatform landscape,” said John Rash, senior VP at ad buying agency Campbell Mithun. “All of the networks going into the upfronts are going to have to be more creative to allow a straighter cycle of episodes.”
That’s easier said than done. A show launching in the fall would have to start production the previous January to run straight through. A freshman breakout series is always going to have periods without original episodes, since a full season is not ordered until the fall.
Upfront ad pricing complicates the picture further. Networks prefer to launch series in the fall since ad rates are highest in the fourth quarter. If networks compact a season, they cannot sell reruns, which still have modest value.
“It’s easy for people to say, ‘Why don’t you just do this?'” Mr. Beckman said.