Point of No Return: TV Confronts Post-Strike Challenge

Mar 16, 2008  •  Post A Comment

For broadcast television networks trying to woo back viewers after the writers strike, the next few weeks may prove a turning point.
The networks are returning to the first-run scripted programming they lost during the 100-day Writers Guild of America work stoppage. If viewers don’t tune in, it may signal a change in viewing habits the networks will have a difficult time reversing.
At CBS, which returns its Monday night comedy block to the airwaves today, optimism is balanced by the knowledge that viewers are more fickle than they were 20 years ago, when the last strike ended.
“Our expectations are realistic,” Chris Ender, CBS senior VP of communications, said. “We know that viewers are not all going to come back right away.”
Since the beginning of the strike, viewers have slowly wandered away from the networks as scripted television dried up. February sweeps were dismal, with almost all of the broadcast networks (with the exception of Fox) posting an average 17% dip in ratings among 18- to 49-year-old viewers from year to year.
The danger of decreased ratings is decreased reach for advertisers, said Brad Adgate, senior VP of research at Horizon Media. If decreases continue, marketers may decide to spend their advertising dollars with other media, Mr. Adgate noted, a concern going into the networks’ advertising upfronts in May.
But, he cautioned, “I just wouldn’t necessarily rule out the power of network television, even if there was a writers strike.”
Since the end of the strike in February, networks have been working overtime to get as many original episodes as they can back on the air quickly. Over the next few weeks, a deluge of fresh content will be flooding back onto the networks, with most expecting their schedules to be at full strength by late April.
The networks are turning to their marketing departments to let viewers know their old favorites haven’t disappeared completely. ABC, CBS and NBC are running commercial campaigns to promote their shows. ABC’s commercials refer to springtime and new life, while CBS’ campaign for the return of its Monday night comedy block features a wildebeest and the headline “All Gnu!” The ads featuring the promotional gnu appeared in CBS on-air spots over the weekend and in print ads today.
NBC’s campaign includes footage of the casts of network’s Thursday night comedies returning to work and features the theme song from “Welcome Back, Kotter.” The campaign also is running on NBC.com and includes signage in New York’s Times Square.
NBC’s Thursday comedies are the main thrust of its promotional campaign, according to John Miller, chief marketing officer of the NBC Universal Television Group.
While shows like “Law & Order” and “Medium” are returning, Mr. Miller said the strike didn’t disrupt the schedule of NBC’s dramas as much as its comedies.
The networks, notably Fox, are using their biggest ratings draws to promote returns.
“The most valuable way to inform viewers is your own air. We’re in a much better position to do that than any other network,” said Preston Beckman, Fox’s head of scheduling. Mr. Beckman said “American Idol,” the top-rated show on television, is the main advantage Fox has to publicize show returns. That means promotional spots for Fox’s “House” and new midseason material, like “New Amsterdam.”
CBS is betting it can leverage rabid fan interest in the National Collegiate Athletic Association’s March Madness basketball tournament to promote its returning shows, Mr. Ender said.
One of the biggest challenges the networks face is luring back viewers when some of their favorite shows aren’t returning until after summer.
“In an ideal world, we’d have every single program coming back,” said Mitch Metcalf, executive VP of program planning and scheduling at NBC Universal.
NBC is saving shows it does have in the can, like “Heroes,” for next season in order to show complete, uninterrupted seasons.
“We’re really taking a long-term view,” Mr. Metcalf said.
Fox has taken a similar approach by shelving “24” until next January.
Mr. Adgate said the networks will need to treat the return of scripted content in April like the summer season, where the anticipation is that a good amount of viewers will come back to broadcast, but it is expected that some viewers won’t.
With a crush of shows coming back to the schedule at the same time, networks face the same dynamic that confronts them at the beginning of each fall season: a clot of shows that compete against each other.
Also, shows in their freshmen or sophomore season that need to build up a consistent viewer base, like NBC’s “Friday Night Lights” or “30 Rock,” are left in an unsure position, as the strike allowed viewers to migrate away when these newer shows needed the most support. Concerns were raised over “30 Rock” meeting a fate similar to Fox’s “Arrested Development” (a critically acclaimed comedy that got the ax) in that inconsistent scheduling and viewership due to the strike would put the show on the bubble.
“I think ‘30 Rock’ is in good shape,” Mr. Metcalf said, adding that the series was seeing some strong interest and viewings on NBC.com.
“That was a really good indicator for ‘The Office’ when ‘The Office’ was just starting out,” he added.
Networks are aware that viewers aren’t sitting around just waiting for new episodes of shows, but are banking on the strength of new content to jumpstart viewers back to broadcast.
“If they liked it before,” CBS’ Mr. Ender said, “they should like it when it comes back.”
ABC did not return calls seeking comment.


  1. Take the high road and let good, scripted content air and your advertisers will be pleased. Take the low road as NBC and you may get ratings in the short run but erode the value of the network. Roller-derby is popular but come on! Look at the demos, it is the same for reality TV vs. scripted television.

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