How much worse could the networks do without writers than they're doing with them?
Much speculation has centered on how networks will fare once their supply of scripted shows runs dry in a few weeks. But broadcasters are already feeling the effects of massive viewer indifference to the new fall series.
On Tuesday night, fresh episodes of three programs -- the ABC comedies "Carpoolers" and "Cavemen" and CBS' dynastic soap "Cane" -- plummeted to their lowest numbers yet among viewers ages 18 to 49, according to figures from Nielsen Media Research.
Each of those shows earned only a 5 share of the crucial young-adult audience, a figure that just one or two seasons ago would probably have meant instant cancellation. By comparison, ABC's drama "Private Practice," one of the top-rated new series, last week earned a 9 share.
"Cavemen," one of the fall's most talked-about shows, finished a distant fourth in its time slot, barely beating CW's "Beauty and the Geek" among 18- to 49-year-olds and netting just 4.9 million overall viewers.
Overall, viewership is down about 4% compared with last season, even taking into account delayed viewing on DVRs. With the exception of ABC's comedy "Samantha Who?" and CBS' vampire drama "Moonlight," every new show has seen steep declines since its premiere.
Reality shows won't necessarily save the networks during a long strike. CBS' "Kid Nation" is among the new shows that have seen a big erosion.
It's still unclear how a lengthy strike could affect ratings of reality shows over the rest of the season. Some experts say that the strike could give some underwhelming series a new lease on life. That's because networks will be reluctant to cancel any program with original episodes in the can.
"These shows will be on the air longer than they normally would be," said Shari Anne Brill of New York ad firm Carat USA.
At the same time, though, it's hard to argue that, strike or no, viewers are continuing to reject the fall offerings. Instead, they're turning up for familiar favorites. CBS' "NCIS," the solid but unsexy military drama, rounded up an enormous audience of 18.2 million viewers Tuesday -- its second-largest total audience ever.
"There's more of an interest in returning favorites than in a lot of the newbies," Brill said.