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TV season’s down for the count

Strike puts network ratings at risk

Less than three months after it began, the 2007-08 television season is basically over — and nobody won.

Nielsen still plans on counting the nightly numbers through May. But no matter when the WGA strike gets resolved, the work stoppage has already lasted long enough to ensure that the current season will go down in the record books with a big fat asterisk.

Even if scribes go back to work within a week or two, there will be enough delays and reduced episode counts to ensure lots of repeats in January and February. As it is, there are just a handful of original episodes remaining for most shows, with many already on hiatus.

If the strike persists past the holidays — as many in Hollywood believe is likely –then a slew of contingency plans will kick in, wreaking all sorts of havoc on normal viewing patterns.

Either way, network types normally obsessed over every up and down movement in the Nielsen meters admit that this year’s battle just doesn’t feel like a normal ratings race.

“Having an asterisk on the season is frustrating,” says Fox scheduling guru Preston Beckman.

He’s bummed because Fox, despite having no breakout scripted hits, did well this fall vs. its perf a year ago. And with “American Idol” about to return, the winter months should be even kinder to the net.

But if Fox manages to win the season handily, it won’t get as much credit for its victory because of the strike factor.

“I think we were going to have a very dominant full season anyway,” Beckman says. “But (the strike) will be a convenient excuse for the other networks.”

Nobody’s making any excuses over at ABC, the network with the most reason to gripe about the strike’s impact on the ratings war.

Alphabet dominated the fall in a grand fashion, roaring out of the gate with momentum thanks to a series of success stories.

The arrival of “Idol” next month would’ve slowed some of ABC’s big mo, but thanks to the strike, we’ll never know whether the Alphabet would’ve been able to pull off a miracle by holding on to its first place ranking.

The silver lining for the Alphabet is that even if might not get as many PR props for its perf, Madison Avenue will still be paying attention.

If and when the regularly scheduled TV season resumes, advertisers will need some sort of yardstick to determine how much coin to pay for 30-second spots. With the next few months likely to be marred by strike contingencies, the fourth-quarter numbers are likely to loom larger than ever once haggling for 2008-09 ad sales begins.

So where do the major nets stand at the unofficial end of the 2007-08 season? Here’s a quick report card on the Big Four:

ABC: The champ

The Alphabet continues to thrive under entertainment prexy Steve McPherson. It will finish the fourth quarter a clear No. 1 in adults 18-49, so far averaging a 3.9 rating/10 share in the key demo.

ABC’s overall frosh class of 2007 earned nearly straight A’s, with the net boasting five of the top 10 newcomers. Not only did “Grey’s Anatomy” spinoff “Private Practice” bow as the year’s top debut, but critical faves “Pushing Daisies” and “Dirty Sexy Money” performed nicely, too.

And after years of unsuccessfully trying to launch a hit comedy, the net did just that with Christina Applegate starrer “Samantha Who?”

“Dancing With the Stars” also remains a powerhouse, rivaling “American Idol” for its ability to lift the fortunes of an entire network. The Alphabet even managed to score a homerun in the specials category, with a “Shrek”-themed half-hour debuting as an instant classic (and a ratings ogre).

“ABC had a good quarter,” one rival admits. “They know who they are. And they’ve got a lot of shows where there could be some upside.”

CBS: The soldier

Eye entertainment chief Nina Tassler tried to shake things up with some non-crimetime fare — and the results were decidedly mixed.

Musical drama “Viva Laughlin” flopped spectacularly, in part because the network seemed ashamed to promote the show’s true nature. Jimmy Smits couldn’t lather up enough ratings to revive the primetime soap on CBS, with less-than-sweet numbers for “Cane” making renewal a longshot.

But with little fanfare, vampire detective drama “Moonlight” struck a vein with viewers, perhaps proving that Eye auds are OK with out-there concepts — as long as dead bodies are involved.

CBS’s biggest fall success was “Big Bang Theory,” which lived up to its title and has proven to be a solid addition to the net’s Monday comedy block.

“With lots of high-ranking network execs saying traditional comedy is dead, here comes a show that clearly proved it’s not,” says Eye scheduling supremo Kelly Kahl.

His net is a solid first in viewers but, more impressively, is in second place among adults 18-49 through last week. The sore spot for CBS: Some key franchises, including the “CSI” skeins and “Survivor,” continue to bleed viewers as they age.

That said, “I think we’ve been remarkably resilient, and I liked our momentum at the end of the November sweep,” he says. “The stability nobody finds interesting at the beginning of the season looks pretty darn good come December and January.”

Fox: Poised to win

Usually, Fox’s fall frame stinks.

“Traditionally, going into (the new year), the question everyone asks is, ‘Can Fox come back from the hole it dug for itself?’,” Beckman says.

This year, however, Fox— while still in third place in the demo with a 3.4/9 — is just a half ratings point out of first place. And thanks to some smart scheduling and a shortened roster of baseball playoffs, the net’s ratings climbed 13% vs. last fall, making it the only net with a real growth story.

“We came in with a stronger, more stable schedule, and we now find ourselves in a more competitive situation,” Beckman says, fully aware that the return of “Idol” will rocket Fox to the top (especially with the strike).

Still, Fox’s scripted development continued to be weak in the fall. New Orleans-based cop drama “K-Ville” didn’t connect with viewers, nor was the Kelsey Grammer-Patricia Heaton laffer “Back to You” the out-of-the-box hit Fox had hoped for (it’ll still be back for a full season, assuming the strike is settled soon).

On the reality front, “America’s Next Great Band” and “Nashville” made Friday one of the few nights on which Fox failed to show growth. But “Kitchen Nightmares,” starring Gordon Ramsay, emerged a winner opposite tough Wednesday competition.

NBC: The also-ran

A change in leadership didn’t produce any Nielsen magic for the Peacock, which endured another fall with double digit ratings declines.

New topper Ben Silverman didn’t have time to put his stamp on the net’s development, but his big reality outing –“Phenomenon” — was anything but in the ratings.

Putting so much promo power behind “Bionic Woman” proved to be a wrong choice: The show opened well, but viewers didn’t care for subsequent episodes and stayed away.

Auds also seemed to grow tired of “Heroes,” which went into a sophomore slump, helping ensure a bumpy launch for the sluggish “Journeyman.” And while crime drama “Life” garnered good reviews and a full season order, its ratings are middling at best.

Overall, NBC is tied with Fox at a 3.4/9, but that figure includes a big boost from Sunday Night Football. Peacock’s ratings will likely drop sharply come January.

No wonder, then, that NBC execs declined to be interviewed about the net’s ratings performance.

If they had talked, however, they might have said good things about spy dramedy “Chuck.” It’s an unqualified hit that’s found an audience in a tough 8 p.m. Monday slot, without the benefit of a lead-in.

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