A bunch of network shows have been picked up for the full season over the past week or so, but you don't hear the bosses crowing about it the way they used to. There's a good reason for that: Ratings for the fall season have been utterly underwhelming, and some of the shows that have been renewed have audiences so small they would have been axed in the past. NBC's Knight Rider and Fox's Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles are the two most obvious examples of the networks' new math -- shows that as little as two years ago would have been cancellation-bait. ABC's Private Practice has mediocre numbers. Of the pickups, only CBS' The Mentalist, averaging around 15 million viewers, can be viewed as a genuine success story.
The drop in viewers this season has been abrupt and widespread, cutting through all the various age and gender demographics and time-slot demographics that TV executives use to parse the ratings. In the key 18-to-49 age bracket, for instance, NBC has lost 19 percent of its viewers from last fall, ABC 18 percent, Fox 15 percent and CBS 8 percent. The drop has been most obvious in the 10 p.m. time slot, where NBC's Lipstick Jungle and My Own Worst Enemy, ABC's Life On Mars and Dirty Sexy Money and CBS' With A Trace have all done lousy business.
The networks are offering all kinds of exotic theories -- blaming TiVo and other digital-video recording devices is a popular one -- but won't face up to the most obvious cause: last season's writers' strike. Many of the views driven off during the three months of reruns and cheapie reality shows broke their TV habit -- or at least, their broadcast network habit -- and haven't returned. Not that the nets have give them any compelling reason to do so: Because the strike squashed the TV development season, the fall season was dotted with new shows that are half-baked adaptations of foreign programs. Kath & Kim and The Ex List are perfectly capable of flopping on their own, without any help from TiVo.
You'd think the sinking Nielsen numbers, coupled with the generally awful state of the American economy, would convince Hollywood to do anything it can to avoid another strike. You'd be wrong. Contract talks between the Screen Actors Guild and the studios have deteriorated to the point where a federal mediator has gotten involved -- the same guy whose last Hollywood mediation ended with the writers' strike. The way this is going, Americans may have to actually start reading books again.