Erosion of the audience for broadcast networks accelerated during the three-month-long writers’ strike, while ad-supported cable networks gained viewers, according to Nielsen Media Research data.
But open to debate is whether the strike by the Writers Guild of America actually exacerbated ongoing audience fragmentation — and viewership losses — for broadcast and, at the same time, spurred growth in online video viewing.
The splintering of the viewing audience among hundreds of TV channels and innumerable Web sites had already been in play before the strike started Nov. 5. The effects of the strike only really became noticeable, one top cable-research official said, when broadcast networks began running out of fresh episodes of hits like ABC’s Grey’s Anatomy.
“Even before the strike had an effect, [broadcast’s] numbers in September, October, November were weak,” Turner Broadcasting System chief research officer Jack Wakshlag said last week. “The strike just made it worse.”
Cable’s share of households in primetime is up 4% season to date as of Feb. 10, versus the year-ago period, reaching a 56.2 share, according to a Turner analysis of Nielsen Media Research data. But at least one Madison Avenue numbers guru said it is not a foregone conclusion that the strike, which ended last week, hurt broadcast’s numbers severely.
Brad Adgate, Horizon Media’s senior vice president and director of research, pointed out that at the height of the strike, comparing December to January, broadcast’s household ratings and share were actually up month to month, while ad-supported cable was down.
In January, broadcast achieved a household rating of 30 and a viewership share of 48. That was compared to December’s 26.5 rating and a 44 share, according to Nielsen Media Research. In contrast, from December to January, cable was down, from a 36.4 rating and a 60 share to a 35.5 rating and a 56 share.
“I’m sure the writers’ strike didn’t help [broadcast], but I don’t know how much it hurt it,” Adgate said. “I’m a little bit hesitant to say this is a slam dunk.”
Even if fresh episodes of favorite shows had run out, broadcast enjoyed several boosts in January, Adgate said. NBC scored with reality competition show American Gladiators. Fox had high-rated postseason National Football League games and new shows such as The Moment of Truth and Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles. That’s not to mention the start of a new season of its biggest hit in recent years, singing competition American Idol.
“We were ready,” said Preston Beckman, Fox Broadcasting’s executive vice president of strategic program planning and research.
“We were prepared for the inevitability of a strike, and the inevitability of the strike going on for awhile,” he said. “So we weren’t caught with our pants down. If you have a plan and you execute the plan, your ratings will stabilize and be fine.”
In rebuttal, Wakshlag said that broadcast’s primetime share typically increases in January compared with December.
“That’s why you need to look at changes from year to year, not from month to month,” he said. “Broadcast-net shares have fallen more from a year ago in January than they did earlier in the year.”
Wakshlag noted that for the week of Feb. 4, the first full week of the February sweep, the Big Four’s primetime household share was a 33.6, down from a 40.4 a year ago.
In contrast to broadcast, ad-supported cable’s household share that week reached a 57.4, up from a 51.9.
“Cable was making up for the bulk of broadcast’s losses,” Wakshlag said.
So far, broadcast’s losses during the walkout increased as the strike dragged on, according to Turner’s analysis of Nielsen data.
At the end of last year, the strike was only starting to have an impact on broadcasters by cutting off the supply of new scripted shows. At the time, broadcast’s primetime household share was down 6% from the prior-year period, to a 37.8 share.
Now, season-to-date as of Feb. 10, the Big Four’s primetime household share suffered a 7% decline, to a 37.6 share, according to a Turner analysis of Nielsen data. In the year-ago period, broadcast was down only 2%.
Even before the strike, broadcast encountered problems with the fall season. Cable still had momentum coming off of a very strong summer and none of the Big Four’s new fall shows turned out to be big hits.
Meanwhile, cable has seen increased gains in primetime share. As of the end of last year, for the season, cable’s primetime household share was up 3% to a 56.2. For the season to date as of Feb. 10, cable’s share was up 4% to a 56.2.
Adgate wasn’t the only ad-agency official reluctant to handicap the extent of the strike’s impact on broadcast. Shari Anne Brill, Carat’s senior vice president and director of programming services, believes broadcast’s declines are part of a trend.
“Yes, cable did pick up during the fall, but it’s hard to separate what is attributable to the strike versus ongoing audience fragmentation,” she said.
While the writers’ strike ended last week, pending ratification of the new deal with studios, it will continue to have repercussions on the Big Four, Wakshlag maintained.
That’s because the broadcasters last week said they can’t get their new scripted fare — such marquee shows as NBC’s Law & Order and The Office, interrupted by the strike — back on the air until March and April.
ABC, NBC, CBS and Fox all revealed post-strike plans, with Fox unveiling a slate of new and returning reality shows for May and June.