Strike, DVRs cause record ratings drop

A dominant Fox is set to be crowned the winner of the 2007-08 television season, one that the broadcast biz — and perhaps even Fox — would just as soon forget.

The writers strike, along with the rising popularity of DVRs and the increased availability of programming on multiple platforms, conspired to make this season the lowest-rated on record for the broadcasters. There was also a dearth of breakout hits, with no new show emerging as the biz’s savior.

Of course, the broadcasters have been losing audience share to cable for years — but this season saw the most troubling year-to-year declines yet.

In a season when overall television usage among young adults was up slightly, the top five English-language broadcast networks (ABC, CBS, NBC, Fox and CW) will finish down 10% in adults 18-49 rating (14.1 vs. 15.6). And their overall audience average (41.5 million viewers) is off 7% from the 2006-07 campaign (44.8 million), according to Nielsen.

By comparison, ad-supported cable saw a 9% increase in 18-49 rating (17.4 vs. 15.9) and 7% in total viewers (51.6 million vs. 48.1 million).

“The strike made this year an anomaly,” said Fox Entertainment chairman Peter Liguori. “But we all should look at what happened to those viewership levels and be shocked into being more aggressive about our thinking. No one knows what will happen with summer viewing and into the fall.”

With just three days to be counted in the season (which ends tonight), Fox led all networks with a 4.2 rating/11 share in adults 18-49, followed by ABC and CBS (tied at 3.0/8), NBC (2.8/8), Spanish-language Univision (1.5/4) and CW (1.1/3).

Fox, which benefited from airing the Super Bowl this season, is up 5% vs. last season — it’s the only network showing gains. CBS, which had aired the Super Bowl a year ago, is down the most (19%), while ABC and CW are off 14% and NBC 10%.

For the first time, Fox will also finish the season as the most-watched network overall, with its 11.1 million viewers beating out traditional leader CBS (10.5 million). The Eye, which has won most weeks down the stretch, likely would have captured its sixth straight total-viewers crown if not for the writers strike.

Working from a smaller base, MyNetwork made some strides in its second season, rising 33% in 18-49 (0.4 vs. 0.3) and 36% in total viewers (1.13 million vs. 835,000).

The biggest story of the season, of course, was the three-month writers strike, which sapped any momentum the nets were building in the fall. Auds were also reluctant to return to hit shows in the spring, with virtually every top hit posting ratings declines.

The rise in DVR playback was another big story, with the residents of one in four homes now with the ability to watch programs on their own timetables.

One result is that hits in crowded timeslots like Thursday at 9 — where “Grey’s Anatomy,” “CSI” and “The Office” all toil — typically see their “live-plus 7″ rating (all DVR playback within a week) shoot up by about 20% vs. their averages reported in the next-day Nielsens.

For Fox, the 2007-08 season reps its fourth consecutive victory in the advertiser-friendly demo of adults 18-49. The net has been remarkably consistent in recent years, with this year’s 4.2 rating a tick above the 4.1 rating it had maintained the previous three years.

It has also seen its overall primetime audience grow now with each of the last four seasons.

“I feel proud of a group out there, from scheduling and planning to marketing and programming, that did a solid job keeping the network vibrant and robust amidst the strike,” Liguori said. “You strip the Super Bowl away and ‘American Idol’ away, and the network is still No. 1 by a good margin. That shows the strength of our network across seven nights a week.”

The performance and results editions of Fox’s “American Idol” remained the top-rated programs in both adults 18-49 and total viewers, even though the show at long last began to show mortal-like signs of ratings erosion.

Fox’s “House” is running neck and neck with ABC’s “Desperate Housewives” as the season’s top-rated scripted program in 18-49.

It’s also worth noting that the net prevailed for the season even without its traditional second-half Monday anchor, “24” — a casualty of the writers strike.

Though Fox had its share of first-year bombs, it ended the season with the two top-rated new programs in lie-detector reality show “Moment of Truth” and sci-fi drama “Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles.”

ABC had a winning fall, thanks in part to some promising newcomers, but the writers strike and the arrival of Fox’s “American Idol” sapped much of its momentum.

Despite ratings declines, the net’s core vets, “Grey’s Anatomy,” “Desperate Housewives,” “Lost” and “Dancing With the Stars,” remain top-10 fixtures. ABC is returning all three of its frosh Wednesday hours in the fall (“Pushing Daisies,” “Private Practice” and “Dirty Sexy Money”) as well as top new comedy “Samantha Who.”

At CBS, crime dramas and reality vet “Survivor” continue to gradually lose ratings steam, but the net was buoyed by the strong performance of its Monday comedy block.

“Two and a Half Men,” which once again stands as TV’s top-rated half-hour, was up slightly vs. its year-ago average. Also contributing were solid laffers “How I Met Your Mother” and “Rules of Engagement” as well as newbie “The Big Bang Theory.”

“Big Bang” is the only Eye rookie to return next fall. Vampire drama “Moonlight,” which generated more buzz than most new shows, was canceled after so-so numbers in its run on Fridays.

NBC finished in fourth place for a fourth straight season, although it finished within striking distance of both ABC and CBS. Top shows included “Heroes,” “The Office” and “Law & Order: SVU,” while its best rookie success came with Monday’s light drama “Chuck,” a show that was kept off the sked in the second half of the season by the writers strike.

“The Office” was up slightly year to year despite moving to a tougher timeslot.

One of the Peacock’s quieter weapons was weight-loss skein “The Biggest Loser,” which delivered hefty ratings — even when it opposed “American Idol” for the first time.

CW had a rough sophomore season, with its year-to-year comps decimated by the loss of vets “Gilmore Girls” and “Reba.”

Net seemed to stabilize as the season went on, though, and ended well with its Monday combo of rookie “Gossip Girl” and vet “One Tree Hill.” In addition to “Gossip Girl,” the net also added another credible piece in comedic drama “Reaper,” but it continues to struggle in comedy, cutting “Aliens in America” after its low-rated inaugural season.

* * *

Looking at the final full week of the season, Fox won for the 19th consecutive week in adults 18-49 (3.5 rating/10 share), as “American Idol” had a strong week. CBS won in total viewers for a fourth straight week (10.3 million).

Even during a frame that included season finales on other nets, “Idol” ruled easily as its Wednesday results show (9.2/22 in 18-49, 24.86m) and Tuesday performance show (9.0/25, 24.77m) were the top-rated programs.

Rounding out the top five in 18-49 were the season finale of ABC’s “Desperate Housewives” (6.2/16, 16.84m) and the penultimate segs of the season for ABC’s “Grey’s Anatomy” (6.1/15, 15.55m) and Fox’s “House” (5.9/14, 15.02m).

Also of note, CBS saw some year-to-year gains for the 43rd “Academy of Country Music Awards” (2.9/8 in 18-49, 11.73m), which benefited by shifting from Tuesday (where it faced “American Idol” a year ago) to its new night, Sunday.

NBC’s “The Office” had a strong finale (4.2/10 in 18-49, 8.21m), up 7% in 18-49 vs. last year’s season-ender.

And on cable, MTV’s “The Hills” had a strong finish to its season (2.3/6, 3.78m), racking up a big 5.6/14 in women 18-34.

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