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Fall TV Season Off To A Poor Start

ARI SHAPIRO, host:

The big TV networks are nervous and not just because of economy. They've been worried about whether audiences would return to TV after the writers' strike disrupted programming last winter. In the past week or so, the networks have started airing some new series and fresh episodes of old shows. The numbers are not good, but television executives say it's too soon to panic. NPR's Kim Masters reports.

KIM MASTERS: When it comes to analyzing ratings, network executives are better at spinning than the savviest political operatives. And those numbers are tricky. Take ABC. The network proudly announced that it had won premiere week, partly on the strength of its two biggest programs, "Desperate Housewives" and "Grey's Anatomy."

(Soundbite of TV show "Grey's Anatomy")

Unidentified Actress: Hey, we can be scared together.

Unidentified Actor #1: Yeah, we could be scared together.

MASTERS: Scared indeed. If you compare the ratings for "Grey's Anatomy" with its first episode last season, it dropped a sharp 17 percent. James Hibberd covers television for the Hollywood Reporter. He says the two big ABC programs may be down, but they're hardly out.

Mr. JAMES HIBBERD (Reporter, Hollywood Reporter): Both had ratings that we haven't even seen for a scripted show since last, like, January or February. So, you know, it was heartening on one level to see that scripted series could still do those numbers after this long break.

MASTERS: Still, the fact remains that most returning series have seen steep drops, notably NBC's "Heroes" coming back from a particularly long hiatus, thanks to the strike.

(Soundbite of TV show "Heroes")

Unidentified Actor #2: I bet you've been wondering where I've been since you saw me last, huh? Let's just say, I took a little detour from my career path. Spent a little time south of border, but it's all behind me now like a long night after a bad taco.

MASTERS: Ah, but there's lingering indigestion. "Heroes" took a 25 percent dive. NBC is stuck in last place, and "Heroes" was supposed to be the glue holding the schedule together. Its faltering performance could be a problem for the network's expensive new series, "My Own Worst Enemy" with Christian Slater, when it premieres after "Heroes" next week. One potential problem for the networks is there aren't that many new shows this fall, again because of the strike. A couple have done pretty well, "Fringe" on FOX and "The Mentalist" on CBS. And some new shows are still to come, including NBC's "Kath and Kim" and ABC's "Life on Mars." But there are lots of distractions. The Hollywood Reporter's James Hibberd points out that the elections and the economy may be robbing the season of some of its usual allure.

Mr. HIBBERD: It was like, who knew that there was even shows premiering last week?

MASTERS: But the big broadcast networks also face more permanent obstacles to ratings happiness. Cable has been making inroads with original programming, and FOX executive Preston Beckman says ratings are increasingly hurt by the Internet, and not just because it gives people something to do besides watch TV.

Mr. PRESTON BECKMAN (Executive Vice President of Strategic Program Planning, FOX Broadcasting): It's not like, wow, it's premiere week, I've got to be at my television because I want to watch "CSI: Miami" or I want to watch "House." We've made it easier for people to see the shows, and we've in a way de-eventized the premiere episodes.

MASTERS: And that's a problem, because a big audience on laptops and handheld devices doesn't translate into the kind of advertising dollars that networks can charge when they glue a lot of eyeballs to the television. Kim Masters, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Kim Masters
Kim Masters covers the business of entertainment for NPR News. Her reports can be heard on NPR's award-winning Morning Edition, All Things Considered, and Weekend Edition. She joined NPR in 2003.