Networks may need time to recover

The writers strike is over, but it may be a while before the broadcast nets stop the bleeding that began when their top-rated scripted shows took a seat in January.

February has been a brutal month for the webs, with cable networks, videogames and YouTube the big beneficiaries of a primetime lineup riddled with reality shows and repeats.

The first full week of the month, in fact, saw the five English-language broadcast networks (ABC, CBS, NBC, Fox and CW) decline by a collective 22% in adults 18-49 rating vs. the same frame a year ago, according to Nielsen. Ad-supported cable shot up by 14%, while overall primetime viewing slid by 3%.

Even Fox megahit “American Idol” is down by double-digits this year, perhaps in part due to the fact that there simply aren’t as many viewers flipping by the broadcast nets this winter.

Most hit series have already cranked back up in production, and original scripted skeins will return in early spring. And the big question now is, will viewers return along with their favorite shows?

It will be interesting to see if an influx of new programming can help the nets reverse the typical viewing trend of spring: Warmer weather and daylight saving time typically results in April producing the smallest auds of the television season.

Among replacement reality shows, NBC has fared pretty well with “American Gladiators,” the return of “The Biggest Loser” and a celebrity version of “The Apprentice,” while Fox has put up the best numbers with its lie-detector gameshow “Moment of Truth.”

But none has been able to approach the ratings heights of top dramas like “Grey’s Anatomy,” “Desperate Housewives” and “CSI.”

As for new scripted shows this winter, Fox’s “Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles” is probably the strongest performer, while ABC’s “Eli Stone,” CBS laffer “Welcome to the Captain” and NBC drama “Lipstick Jungle” are doing OK but have failed to create much of a buzz.

Shows that won’t return after weak perfs opposite somewhat soft competish, include CW reality contest “Crowned” and ABC drama “Cashmere Mafia.”

Here’s a look at the nets as they prep for the season’s homestretch:

Fox

The major net with the fewest weekly hours to fill (15) and the biggest hit (the ever-elastic “American Idol”) is, not surprisingly, holding up the best and is expected to win the season in all key demos.

“Moment of Truth” has been a good addition to the sked, and “Hell’s Kitchen” should perform very well on Tuesday — unless the net shifts gears again and opts to keep “House” behind “Idol” on the night.

Net has a few new scripted shows, including drama “New Amsterdam” and comedy “Unhitched,” but expectations are fairly low and none has to perform especially well, given their low-profile timeslots.

Notably missing on the net’s winter/spring sked is “24,” a strike casualty that won’t kick off its next season until January. Another serialized staple of the net, “Prison Break,” won’t begin its next story arc until late summer, to be replaced on Monday this spring by “Bones.”

ABC

Its reliance on serialized scripted skeins left it the most vulnerable during the work stoppage, but the return of “Lost” has provided a big boost to the net’s Thursday numbers in recent weeks.

Now, with the Oscars, Oprah Winfrey’s new reality show “Oprah’s Big Give” and the return of “Dancing With the Stars” on March 17, ABC is in position to finish second to Fox for the season in 18-49.

On the sked front, when “Grey’s Anatomy” returns in mid-April, “Lost” could shift to 10 o’clock. The resulting lineup of “Ugly Betty,” “Grey’s” and “Lost” would make for one of the strongest qualitative nights in memory.

CBS

The Eye has lagged its rivals in 2008 — it lacked new reality programming and its crime repeats didn’t perform as well as expected — but it is the net with the most aggressive rollout of returning shows. As a result, viewers likely won’t see any repeats down the stretch on its key nights of Monday and Thursday.

CBS will keep a close eye on Monday comedy “The New Adventures of Old Christine” and Tuesday drama “Jericho,” which will use the rest of winter as auditions for slots on the fall sked.

The winter/spring edition of “Big Brother” doesn’t figure to do much up against tough competish in the early-evening hours. But it should provide a decent ratings jolt for CBS in its three weekly hours.

NBC

The writers strike didn’t treat the Peacock that badly as its reality shows performed well enough to keep the net more competitive than usual with ABC and CBS.

Now, though, NBC could be in for a sluggish spring as its highest-rated drama, “Heroes,” won’t be back until fall, nor will its top-rated new program from this season, “Chuck.” And the successful “American Gladiators” is ending its run, to be replaced by the likes of “My Dad Is Better Than Your Dad.”

Comedies, which took a backseat to reality shows during the writers strike, will need to play a more prominent role down the stretch. But the net, which skewed relatively young in the fourth quarter, will draw an older aud thanks to more segs of crime shows and gamer “Deal or No Deal.”

CW

The return of “America’s Next Top Model” this week, and a sked shift that puts its comedy block on Sundays should help limit its ratings losses, but the net is really in need of a defining hit. It still thinks it has that in modest rookie performer “Gossip Girl,” but it needs to find a way to spread the word — perhaps by relaunching the teen sudser in summer.

What the net needs though more than anything is an identity. And that’s not so easily accomplished at a time when its target audience has so many more viewing options than even the WB at its nascent stage a decade ago.

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