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Strike's over, but viewers may be looking elsewhere

The long-splintered TV audience has many options, which reruns made more attractive.

February 13, 2008|Dawn C. Chmielewski | Times Staff Writer

During the 1988 writers strike, TV viewers sick of watching reruns found themselves turning to Fox's raunchy new sitcom "Married With Children."

The budding Fox network was struggling and, like its bigger rivals, had resorted to rerunning episodes when viewers discovered henpecked shoe salesman Al Bundy and his Spandex-clad wife, Peg. Their quirky appeal helped brand the "fourth" network as an iconoclast, able to take on ABC, CBS and NBC.

Now when it comes to a breakout hit propelling an upstart media challenger, you're more likely to be ogling "Obama Girl" on YouTube.com.

The 3-month-old strike officially ended late Tuesday, when members of the Writers Guild of America voted overwhelmingly to go back to work. One question that lingers is whether viewers will return to broadcast TV after many became tired of repeats and turned off the tube.

During the writers strike, people watched a record number of online videos. Teens spent more time primping their pages on social networking websites such as MySpace. Online game-playing surged. Cable networks attracted more channel surfers. And even DVD sales, which had been in slow decline, ticked up in January.

These shifts in leisure activity can't necessarily be pegged to the walkout. But the network TV doldrums created by the lack of new shows accelerated the splintering of the audience. It illustrated the myriad entertainment choices available and the challenges ahead for the broadcast networks as they try to woo viewers back.

That doesn't mean viewers won't return once new episodes of such popular network shows as "Grey's Anatomy," "House" or "Heroes" air, say media analysts. But the network television audience -- if not television altogether -- is unlikely to snap back to pre-strike levels, they add. And so far, the smattering of new and returning series, such as ABC's "Cashmere Mafia," have had a tough time attracting viewers.

"Since the 1980s, every time viewers leave the broadcast networks for a strike, summer reruns or any other cause, they never return in the same numbers, and over the years that gradual erosion has become enormously significant," said Jeffrey Cole, director of USC's Center for the Digital Future.

"In 1975, the three broadcast networks accounted for 90% of all television viewing," he said. Today, the five networks rarely account for more than half.

Nielsen Media Research statistics show that viewers have defected from the broadcast networks since the start of the fall season in September. By the end of January, 48% of the viewers were watching network shows, according to Nielsen's Live Plus 7 share report, a measure of those who watch a program at its scheduled time or view it as a recording within a week. At the same time, cable networks gained more viewers, pulling in 56% of the television audience.

Nielsen cautions that its numbers don't indicate why viewers are switching to cable networks such as HGTV or AMC. It could be because of the lack of new episodes of "Two and a Half Men" or a newfound passion for "House Hunters" and "Mad Men."

Nonetheless, the strike seems to have exacerbated the flight of viewers to cable channels -- and elsewhere.

"There's just been such a dearth of original programs on the broadcast networks. You've seen some viewers shifting to cable and sampling some of those shows," said Derek Baine, a senior analyst with SNL Kagan. "The trend's been going on for some time, but I think it's accelerating with the strike."

Consider Harlan Gustafson, 18, of Ocala, Fla., who said he was such a devoted fan of Comedy Central's "The Daily Show With Jon Stewart" that he had been watching the faux newscast through reruns and since its return without writers. "I can recite them by heart," he said. But lately, Gustafson, who rarely misses a college basketball game on TV, has been drawn to channels such as the Food Network and the History Channel.

Nielsen VideoScan similarly reported an increase in DVD sales in January compared with a year ago. Erin Crawford, senior vice president and general manager of Nielsen Home Entertainment, said sales might have been buoyed by the quality of December's DVD releases. In January 2007, only one movie released to home video had grossed more than $100 million at the box office. This year, Crawford said, there were three summer blockbusters out on DVD: "Rush Hour 3," "The Bourne Ultimatum" and "Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix."

"It's hard to tell whether it was the appeal of the films or nothing new to watch on TV," said Tom Adams, president of Adams Media Research, noting that sales also rose in December. "The two combined led to better video performance than we've seen in the end of the year."

Echo Wein, 36, of Brea said she usually watched ABC's drama "Desperate Housewives." As the prime-time soap opera slipped into reruns, she sampled some reality shows, but "I'm kind of sick of that." Instead, Wein has been renting more movies for the family to watch together and spending time on her hobby.

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