TV ratings and the writers’ strike

The Hollywood writer’s strike has added a lot of confusion to the big macro question of what’s happening to television ratings and viewership in general.

Overall TV viewership has been in decline for the last few years as the Internet increasingly takes over the world. The writers’ strike makes that decline harder to measure in the present because you expect viewership to decline anyway when there are no new episodes of popular shows on the air. In fact, I think the writers’ strike may be causing people to underestimate the intrinsic rate of decline of the television industry.

Here’s some interesting data from the New York Times:

As the writers’ strike approaches the three-month mark, it has conveyed new cachet, such as it is, on soap operas. Shows like “General Hospital” and “As the World Turns” have become virtually the only reliable option for viewers interested in watching rerun-free, serialized drama on broadcast television.

None of the eight daytime dramas on network television have gone into reruns, and none have plans to do so…

[The significance of this: because soap operas have continued to produce and air new episodes — albeit apparently with scab writers — you can compare last year’s viewership numbers to this year’s numbers without the strike completely clouding the issue. And so:]

Since the television season began in September, all eight network daytime dramas have lost viewers when compared with the same period a year ago. The biggest losses have been for “Days of Our Lives” (19 percent) and “All My Children” (14 percent), according to figures provided by Nielsen…

The word is that prime time TV viewership was also way down last fall, compared to the previous year, before the strike. In fact, some people say that’s one reason why the Hollywood media companies were so willing to let the writers go on strike — it gave them a chance to basically just write off a whole year of bad ratings and doomed shows.

Now, consider also that TV advertising revenue this year includes windfalls from the 2008 presidential election season and the 2008 Olympics.

Exactly how catastrophic 2009 will be for the TV industry — in terms of viewership and ad revenue — is an open question, and a very interesting one.