Would they come roaring back?
That was the question network programmers have been nervously asking themselves ever since the writers strike derailed all scripted programming this winter. Network TV had already been in a nosedive over the past year or so, especially after March and April, 2007, when a steep decline in ratings across the board was blamed on everything from early daylight savings to increased use of TiVo and PVR time shifting to a generational shift in media use. (Or to a steady increase in cable viewing, as Bill Gorman argues today in TV By The Numbers.)
With new episodes of favorite shows trickling back over the last few weeks, the answer is starting to take shape. The picture looks better than many programmers had feared, although not for all shows.
Global, which was hammered harder than any other network during the strike (some of their key tent pole programs, such as Heroes and 24, won't be back until September or January) were quick to post their numbers for Bones today. Monday's first new episode in months outperformed CTV's Dancing with the Stars and a CBC NHL playoff game among 18-49-year-old viewers in the two cities Global cares the most about, Toronto and Vancouver. The forensic detective series, starring David Boreanaz and Emily Deschanel, was up 20% in that key demo year-to-year, with a total national audience of 1,265,000 according to overnight averages. (CTV's two hour Dancing With The Stars still won the night Monday in total households across Canada with an average estimated audience of 1,652,000 viewers.)
It was a different story in the States, where the shift of Bones to 8 p.m. cost Fox viewers. Although it boosted Fox in that timeslot, the series posted it's second-lowest original episode numbers ever.
The good news in Canada can't come fast enough for Global, which was pummeled by the wave of returning CSI episodes on CTV during the last national weekly BBM NMR report. CTV had nine of the Top-10 shows the week of March 31-April 6 nationally, 17 of the Top-20. CSI roared back April 1 to top the ratings with over 3 million viewers across Canada. Both CSI: Miami and CSI: NY cracked the 2 million mark for Top 5 spots in Canada the same week.
For various reasons, the aging CSIs seem more resilient in Canada than in the U.S. Last week, (April 7-13), two CSI's landed in the U.S. Top-20 with the original at No. 3 (behind two American Idols) at 20.09 million and CSI: NY at No. 11 with 12.38 million viewers. CSI: Miami was bumped last week for the college basketball championship game.
Back in Canada (and a week earlier), except for old reliable (but slipping) Survivor at No. 6 (with 2,010,000 viewers), Global's next highest rated TV series across Canada that week was NCIS, which staggered in at No. 19 with just over a million viewers.
CBC, fresh out of new scripted episodes, had two shows in the Canadian Top 30 that week, Hockey Night in Canada (No. 18 at just over a million viewers) and the Sunday Night News at No. 30 (783,000). Those NHL playoff numbers should launch more hockey games into the Top-30 in Friday's national numbers release.
In the U.S., some returning shows are doing better than others. After a great deal of promotion and late night talk show chatter, Desperate Housewives limped back with a record low for an original episode. Sunday night's 16 million viewers was well off this season's average of 18.9 million, according to Nielsen. It did a bit better proportionately on CTV in Canada, drawing 1,763,000 viewers Sunday night, easily winning the time period but down from its automatic 2 million-plus heyday.
NBC, which like Global in Canada could use some good news, had to be cheered by a Top-10 finish among 18-49-year-olds for an original (and hour-long) episode of The Office last Thursday night.
Those numbers tell the story of shows trending in opposite directions--strike or no strike.