Strike poses shaky year but ratings still merry

Rocked by a year of upheaval, the TV biz ends 2007 in a very different mindset. Many of the rules have changed — and many more have yet to be written.

Broadcast TV was hit the hardest, and on several fronts. For starters, basic cable asserted itself this summer like never before, stealing broadcast’s thunder with a barrage of new critical and commercial hits.

In the fall, the webs were smacked by lower Nielsen numbers, as viewers continued to time-shift primetime viewing — or flee broadcast TV altogether.

Then came the Writers Guild strike, and a virtual shutdown of the entire business.

Nevertheless, through the chaos, a number of players had landmark years. Here’s a look at 10 people, places or things that mattered in 2007:

The Showrunner

The WGA strike was easily the most important event of the year, but the entire effort might have been a bust had it not been for the support of the smallscreen’s hybrid class of writer-producers.

Many management types figured showrunners like Steve Levitan, Seth MacFarland and Greg Berlanti would be among the most reluctant members of the scribe tribe to embrace a work stoppage. As a rule, these hyphenates have more to lose, since they often have ownership stakes in the shows, or at least a chunk of the backend. What’s more, since their pay packages well exceed the minimum compensation levels that are at the heart of the strike, many writer-producers lost more money in the first month of the stoppage than they’ll make back even if the all of the WGA’s demands are met.

Instead, the showrunners formed a loose coalition, with most agreeing to not render any producing services for at least the first week of the strike. The strong action of the Guild’s richest members gave the WGA’s cause major momentum in the opening weeks of the strike (some of which has been lost in recent weeks).

The strike wasn’t the only area in which showrunners flexed their muscles in 2007. Before the season pretty much ended in late fall, the importance of a good exec producer was being felt on network schedules via showrunners who kept a hand in multiple shows.

Berlanti, for example, is turning into a sort of writing Aaron Spelling for ABC, with “Brothers & Sisters” and “Dirty Sexy Money” and a third show on the way (“Eli Stone”). Josh Schwartz is behind rookie successes “Chuck” and “Gossip Girl,” and Chuck Lorre has become a comedy machine for CBS, with both “Two and a Half Men” and the new “Big Bang Theory.”

At least the strike is giving these hyphenates a chance to catch their breaths.

The DVR

TiVo has been around for a while, but 2007 will be remembered as the year the DVR hit the big time.

That’s because in the fall, Nielsen revised its data enough so that the percentage of DVR homes in its sample more than doubled, to more than 20%. Suddenly, nets found themselves downplaying next-day ratings in order to spin a whole new set of numbers that included viewership of a show up to a week after it first aired.

Webheads truly began using DVR data in deciding fates of shows. The CW, for example, quickly picked up a full season of “Gossip Girl” after realizing how many folks were watching it outside of its normal timeslot.

But DVRs might be hurting other shows. Nielsen-watchers have noted the steep declines in 10 p.m. shows, and some believe that’s because auds are using the last hour of primetime to catch up on previously recorded programs.

With DVR penetration expected to gradually rise in the next few years, expect more uncertainties over the role of TiVo and its cousins.

Steve McPherson

NBC’s Ben Silverman made headlines. Steve McPherson made hits — and yeah, a few headlines, too.

The reporters who cover television reacted with glee when ABC’s entertainment boss lobbed a few verbal volleys at Silverman back in July. They coudn’t believe McPherson was engaging in the sort of talk ususally reserved for off-the-record bitch sessions.

But by the time fall rolled around, McPherson’s programming actions spoke much louder than his previous words.

Having already taken ABC from also-ran to primetime power within two years, McPherson crafted the strongest slate of newcomers. “Grey’s Anatomy” spinoff “Private Practice” overcame brutal reviews to emerge as a solid triple in a season filled with strikeouts, and “Pushing Daisies” — the season’s most-praised newcomer — got off to a strong start, surprising those who thought it would end up in the brilliant-but-canceled category. Also, “Dirty Sexy Money” has worked well on Wednesdays, and “Women’s Murder Club” was hanging in there on Fridays.

Best typifying McPherson’s no guts, no glory programming philosophy wasn’t a series, however. It was a little holiday special called “Shrek the Halls” — whose monster ratings instantly vaulted it past the likes of Rudolph and Charlie Brown to become TV’s most-watched Christmas chestnut of the season. Alphabet had to shell out a megamillion license fee for the project, but the payoff made it a bet worth taking.

Basic cable

The ratings, buzz and critical acclaim was dominated by basic cable this summer, embarrassing the broadcast networks in the process.

While the traditional webs were caught with their pants down, cablers aimed high with series including AMC’s “Mad Men” and FX’s “Damages.”

“Mad Men” may not have been a ratings powerhouse, but it helped redefine AMC virtually overnight as a place for well-crafted drama. “The thinking behind our series is to really do something original, something you don’t see on other TV networks,” AMC VP of series and minis Christina Wayne says.

On Lifetime, “Army Wives” gave the femme-centric channel a much-needed boost, and scored some of the cabler’s best ratings ever, while USA scored with “Burn Notice.”

The broadcast nets are taking notice. They admit to sleeping on the job during summer, although they’re still not necessarily pledging to produce scripted series during the off-season.

Bob Greenblatt

In 2007, Showtime shed its reputation as the poor man’s HBO.

With Greenblatt at the creative helm, the CBS Corp.-owned channel has been steadily building ratings and buzz.

Headed into this year, Showtime was doing nicely, thanks to success stories such as “Weeds” and “Dexter.” And then in the spring, it enhanced its slate with lush costumer “The Tudors,” which managed to make Henry VIII look sexy. Over the summer, Showtime brought David Duchovny back to TV in “Californication,” a half-hour that had critics kvelling for its look at the male psyche.

Greenblatt, the former indie TV producer brought to the network by Leslie Moonves when he gained custody of the channel, has done well by greenlighting shows that aspire to critical acclaim yet remain sudsy and populist at their core. And while not everything has worked — remember “Fat Actress”? — Greenblatt’s ratio of hits to misses is one any Big Four webhead would kill for.

Charles Gibson

Katie Couric was supposed to be the superstar who ended Brian Williams’ run as TV’s top-rated anchor. Instead, viewers have fallen hard for another former morning show anchor.

In February, Gibson’s “World News” on ABC slipped ahead of NBC’s “Nightly News,” ending nearly a decade of Peacock dominance in the sweeps frame. Gibson and Co. did it again in May, turning what had been a clear lead for Williams into a serious horserace.

Gibson has succeeded by seeming to revel in his lack of flash or sizzle. He didn’t radically overhaul his newscast or mount any stunts to lure auds. Instead, the anchor has simply served up the news with a minimum of hype — and viewers seem to be responding.

Williams is still very much in the nightly news game, running neck and neck with Gibson most weeks. But at least Gibson has made things interesting.

Tina Fey

“30 Rock’s” not a commercial success, but the NBC laffer’s plots, wild characters and subversive humor has won over critics and Emmy voters — who awarded this year’s comedy statue to Fey and company.

As a res
ult, the former “Saturday Night Live” star and head writer has been anointed the latest savior of the TV sitcom.

This year, “30 Rock” has hit its stride, boasting a particularly Emmy-worthy perf every week from star Alec Baldwin. Then there were the multitude of guests stars and cameos, from the likes of Carrie Fisher, Elaine Stritch, Andy Richter, David Schwimmer, James Carville and, yes, Al Gore.

NBC believes in the show, too, and hopes it has another sleeper on its hands, a la “The Office,” which started out slowly, but is now the Peacock’s comedy linchpin.

“The View”

There were few topics hotter this year than “The View” itself. The behind-the-scenes drama at the ABC daytime show created countless headlines throughout the year — and few were flattering.

Of course, all the bickering only served to fuel “The View’s” ratings.

The turmoil came to a head in May, when hosts Rosie O’Donnell and Elizabeth Hasselbeck got into an on-air verbal sparring match. Further ticking O’Donnell off, the show’s producers put the two on together via split-screen.

O’Donnell, who’d already announced she was leaving the show, packed up and never returned.

And so ended a controversial tenure in which O’Donnell angered many, thrilled others and helped goose “View” ratings to new heights.

Since her departure, “The View” has quieted down — but not entirely. Before going on maternity leave, Hasselbeck’s increasingly vocal political views ruffled some feathers, while mellow O’Donnell replacement Whoopi Goldberg has raised one or two eyebrows. Then there’s new panelist Sherri Shepherd, whose staunch creationist beliefs, among other things, have opened her up to ridicule.

“High School Musical”

Any exec worried about the waning TV viewing habits of kids and teens can take solace in “High School Musical.”

The debut this summer of “High School Musical 2″ wasn’t just an event, it was a phenomenon. Premiere averaged 17.2 million viewers, making it the most-watched entertainment program cable has ever recorded.

That first weekend alone, 33.2 million viewers caught “HSM2″ — bigger than even “Spider-Man 3’s” record-setting weekend, when it sold approximately 22.6 million tickets.

Turns out that fickle demo can be yanked away from the Playstation or Facebook and plopped back in front of the TV set from time to time — and this year, they hit the Disney Channel in record numbers. Add in hot original series like “Hannah Montana” and “The Suite Life of Zack and Cody,” and Disney Channel was among the most-watched cable nets overall for the year.

“High School Musical” had poured more than $100 million into Disney’s operating income even before the sequel, and the franchise has been a merchandising powerhouse. The soundtrack to “HSM2″ even ends 2007 as the second-highest selling CD of the year.

Trashy reality TV

Reality TV has never been a bastion of high culture, but in 2007, the genre went the Jerry Springer route and trashed things up in a serious way.

Leading the race to the bottom were the various networks of MTV. The mothership network scored big with the bisexual “Bachelor” clone “A Shot at Love With Tila Tequila” and the sordid sudser “The Hills.” Things were even more apocalyptic over at VH1, which seemed to churn out shockfests (often with “celebrities” such as Scott Baio, Brett Michaels and Danny Bonaduce attached) at an alarming clip. E! held its own too, with “Keeping Up With the Kardashians.”

The tabloidization of cable reality even spread to networks once known for their classiness. A&E made the allegedly unscripted antics of “Gene Simmons’ Family Jewels” one of its signature series, while TLC — which once stood for the Learning Channel — expanded its show about tattoo artists from Miami to Los Angeles.

Like rubberneckers near a freeway car crash, auds couldn’t help watching these freak shows, which mirrored the celeb circus currently dominating pop culture (Lindsay! Brittney! Jamie Lynn!) While the sleazy stuff was concentrated in cable, there’s evidence — e.g., NBC’s revival of “American Gladiators” — the broadcast nets are mulling a shift toward the cheesy.

Want Entertainment News First? Sign up for Variety Alerts and Newsletters!
Post A Comment 0