No New Script Written


Nine weeks have gone by since television writers walked off the set of 24, Desperate Housewives, Army Wives and other big-name broadcast and cable television shows in protest over compensation issues.

Surprisingly, the sky has yet to fall, as was predicted.

There hasn’t been a mass exodus of viewers to new and fresh Web video, as was initially feared by network executives — and hoped for by Web heads.

In fact, television viewership levels haven’t changed much since November when the Writers Guild of America said “no mas” to network executives and hit the picket lines.

The percentage of homes using television — known as HUT levels — are holding pretty steady since the strike began Nov. 5. Primetime HUT levels have been averaging around 61% in the past two months, slightly below the 61.9% levels from the start of the 2007-08 television season, which began Sept. 24.

Even the gen-Y’ers who were predicted to be the first to drop the remote and pick up the mouse for their video entertainment have yet to abandon the boob tube. According to a recent survey by the San Francisco-based online market research company Peanut Labs, more than half of purportedly fickle 13 to 25 year olds are still watching about the same amount of TV since the writers’ strike began. Also, 47% of the 1,175 young adults surveyed indicated that they have not watched more online videos than usual.

Whether that says more about the quality of broadcasting and cable content or the paucity of palatable Web content is uncertain. What is clear is that despite a unique window of opportunity, none of the myriad of original, made-for-the-Web shows has garnered significant audience traction.

Even episodes from the much touted Web drama series Quarterlife have failed to draw millions of viewers to MySpace and YouTube, where new episodes are streamed twice a week. A recent article in The New York Times describes the show, about the lives of a group of friendly twentysomethings, as “the first television-quality production for the Web” and NBC has already picked it up as a midseason replacement series.

But despite the acclaim and the extensive exposure through MySpace and YouTube, the Times reported that many of the Quarterlife episodes have struggled to draw 100,000 viewers. That’s a far cry from the 831,000 folks who watched the fourth repeat of the Dec. 18 episode of FX’s Nip/Tuck.

With more than 100 channels on most cable systems today, television viewers facing the now-inevitable prospect of watching reruns of their favorite shows are more likely to just switch to another channel rather than turn on their laptops.

And it’s not like the broadcast and cable networks will become a vast wasteland for scripted reruns. The broadcast networks are lining up several first-run series such as Fox’s Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles, CBS’s Jericho and ABC’s Lost that may get additional sampling from fans frustrated by Grey’s Anatomy reruns.

For their parts, cable networks have several well-known series lined up and ready to go.

FX and Sci Fi Channel in particular have the final seasons of The Shield and Battlestar Galactica respectively scheduled to debut in sooner rather than later.

The forecast may not be sunny for television viewers due to the writers’ strike. But it’s a far cry from the doom-and-gloom scenario that more than one television executive may have feared.

Indeed, while the writers are striking to get a piece of any revenue from the online business their studios may be about to generate, it’s doubtful that Web videos — produced either by professionals or amateurs — will produce a large enough tsunami to carry away viewers from the television set to the computer, in anything approaching a big wave.