US network ratings slide as writers strike drags on

LOS ANGELES Wed Jan 30, 2008 5:32pm EST

LOS ANGELES Jan 30 (Reuters) - The 12-week-old Hollywood writers strike is taking a heavy toll on prime-time viewership with television production largely stopped and the major networks airing more repeats, game shows and reality shows.

The five top broadcast networks were down a collective 17 percent for the week ended Jan. 27 in ratings among viewers aged 18 to 49, the audience most prized by advertisers compared with the same week last year, according to Nielsen Media Research.

That is a sharp drop from earlier this season, before networks' supply of original sitcom and drama episodes ran dry and year-to-year ratings declines were running closer to 10 percent, network executives said.

Within weeks of the start of the Writers Guild of America (WGA) strike against major studios, work on most scripted prime-time shows ground to a halt.

The effects were largely unnoticed by viewers at first, as networks burned off a stockpile of original series programming, then filled their schedules with highly rated holiday specials and sports events through December and much of January.

Except for a handful of series the networks had saved for a winter "mid-season" launch, the cupboard of fresh episodes of scripted hits is bare.

News Corp's NWSa.N Fox led network rivals again in the latest weekly ratings race due to the smash hit talent contest "American Idol" and a strong debut of its lie-detector reality show, "The Moment of Truth." But Fox still saw a drop of 13 percent among viewers 18 to 49 years of age from the same week last year.

Walt Disney Co's (DIS.N) ABC posted a 21 percent year-to-year slide in its 18-49 score, without fresh episodes for hit shows like "Grey's Anatomy" and "Desperate Housewives." Its most popular program was "Extreme Makeover: Home Edition."

CBS, a unit of CBS Corp (CBS.N), saw a 23 percent drop in the 18-49 age group after exhausting fresh episodes for most of its popular "CSI" franchise earlier this month.

Both ABC and CBS are looking forward to an upturn with midseason premieres of new seasons of ABC's "Lost" on Jan. 31 and CBS's "Survivor" on Feb. 7.

Viewership for NBC, majority-owned by General Electric (GE.N), was flat for the week compared with a year ago.

NBC, which had the fewest scripted hits among the networks to begin with, has been the most aggressive in rolling out new reality programming. It was helped by the popularity of the new "American Gladiators" series and an original episode of "Law & Order: Special Victims Unit."

The 18-49 ratings for the fledgling network CW, a joint venture between CBS Corp and Time Warner Inc (TWX.N), fell about 46 percent year to year, according to Nielsen.

Efforts to end the writers strike got a boost last Wednesday as the WGA and the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers (AMPTP), which represents the studios, began informal talks aimed at laying the groundwork for official bargaining to resume.

The new discussions marked their first face-to-face talks since contract negotiations collapsed on Dec. 7.

But even if a settlement was reached immediately, network executives say it would take weeks for the studios to ramp up production on new episodes of shows thrown off the air by the writers strike. (Editing by Toni Reinhold)

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