Top Shows Hit Lows; Was It the Strike?

Spring has sprung leaks in big-network lineups. Ratings shortfalls for some top series have sparked Hollywood hand-wringing on the eve of next week's fall schedule announcements.

Such shows as "ER," "CSI: Miami," "My Name Is Earl," "The Simpsons" and "Supernatural" hit all-time lows in recent weeks, and others -- including "Grey's Anatomy" and "Cold Case" -- are down sharply from last spring.

Some observers blame the writers' strike, which forced a three-month gap in most scripted series and led viewers to stray. Most series have trickled back but without the usual marketing fanfare.

"I'm not convinced people realized their shows were back," says ABC prime-time research chief Larry Hyams. "It's not like there was a premiere week" that lured them.

Strike-hobbled scripted series weren't the only ones to lose ground. "American Idol," "Survivor" and "Deal or No Deal" did, too, part of the typical ratings erosion as series age.

"There has been significant slippage compared to normal series averages," says ad buyer John Rash of Campbell-Mithun in Minneapolis. "What's difficult to discern is if this is a post-strike media malaise that will be corrected" next fall.

But it's not as if viewers abandoned TV. Nielsen data show overall viewership is flat or up slightly from last spring. Instead, more people are watching cable. And more of them are recording shows on DVRs, now in 24% of homes, up from 16% last spring. More than 2 million "Grey's" viewers -- 10% of its total audience -- now watch the show one to seven days after it airs.

Other media analysts say ratings always decline from fall to spring and argue that a better measure is to compare that dropoff from year to year.

"Most shows are not down at all because of the writers' strike," says Steve Sternberg of Magna Global USA, who says the pre-strike to spring decline "didn't get any worse" and in some cases was lower than last year.

Moreover, the networks are by and large in the same boat. CBS and CW are down sharply this season -- and top-ranked Fox has gained -- but the list of top-10 shows since March is largely the same as it was last spring.

Still, the bad news is more than networks need as they head into the crucial late-spring period when they sell the majority of their advertising for next season. Those ad prices are largely determined by how well returning shows do this year.