WHEN NBC's Golden Globes telecast devolved into a fiasco earlier this month, with ratings skidding more than 70%, it seemed to hammer home the conventional wisdom about the writers strike.
The strike by the Writers Guild of America, you'll recall, was supposed to be a disaster for TV ratings. Once they realized their favorite shows were no longer airing original episodes, angry and bereft viewers would go berserk, smash their flat-screens and spend all their newfound free time on Facebook.com.
That may yet happen, of course, but as the strike enters its 12th week, and as the industry hopes for a speedy resumption of negotiations in light of Thursday's agreement between the Directors Guild of America and the alliance representing major networks and studios, the effect on ratings so far has, aside from one-off train wrecks like the Globes, been remarkably modest.
Many analysts are projecting broadcast declines this winter in the 5% to 9% range compared with last year (during the 1988 writers strike, viewing dropped roughly 9%). Already this month, NBC has seen a healthy start for "American Gladiators." Fox's "American Idol" last week returned for Season 7, off a bit from last year but still huge. And NBC's "Tonight Show With Jay Leno" (which doesn't have access to its writers) and CBS' "Late Show With David Letterman" (which does) have rebounded impressively from their strike-imposed hiatuses last year.
"Ratings are down but not down catastrophically," Mitch Metcalf, executive vice president of program planning and scheduling for NBC Universal, said last week.
Yes, some guild militants may regard this as typical network pabulum. The suits just want everyone to think everything's rosy, such thinking goes, so they can foil writers' efforts to win contract concessions.
But it doesn't take a union-busting rat to see that a softer-than-expected landing is hardly bad news for TV writers. After all, who wants to return to work and have to claw their way out of a trench on Day 1?
Now, this doesn't mean the networks have nothing to worry about. It just so happens they were cooking up a pot of trouble long before the strike started. The strike may have even done the networks a favor by diverting attention from the crushing disappointment that was the fall TV season.
Through the first three months of the season, total viewing on the five broadcast networks collectively slipped 5% compared with the previous year, according to figures from Nielsen Media Research (only Fox was up, by a modest 4%). In other words, any ratings erosion due to the strike will not likely be much worse than what the networks were experiencing anyway.
More important, out of 27 new shows, not a single one can be classified as a breakout hit. Not "Pushing Daisies," not "Gossip Girl," not "Chuck," not "Private Practice," not "Back to You," not (please not!) "Kid Nation."
That is the real disaster of this season, and it has nothing to do with the strike. Hey, don't blame the writers either: It's the networks' air, and their executives make very large salaries to pick hit shows.
This explains why the network bosses seem to be viewing the work stoppage as a pretext for big industrial shifts. Presidential candidates aren't the only ones spouting the change mantra these days: Networks can't keep doing business the way they have, because it ain't working. The realization that deep, abiding change is in the air may be this strike's most lasting legacy, more than new formulas for writers' residual payments.
NBC's Metcalf, for instance, echoed long-standing industry complaints that the fall season is a "demolition derby" where fragile new series have a tough time attracting an audience. And last week his boss, Jeff Zucker, NBC Universal president and chief executive, gave his strongest signal yet that the network would soon abandon its splashy annual program rollout to advertisers in New York.
"A forced period of reexamination" for the TV industry, said John Rash of the ad firm Campbell Mithun, could be "the silver lining in a very dark cloud."
But for the time being, the strike's on, and the networks have to figure out a way to ride it out. Fox remains in the strongest long-term position, because of "Idol," a large bench of reality series and the simple fact that it has to fill a schedule that's one-third smaller than its competitors'. Plus, a reduced commitment to the Major League Baseball playoffs last fall enabled Fox to get more momentum for its fall shows.
"We achieved parity with other networks" during the fall, noted Fox scheduling chief Preston Beckman.
NBC is probably in the next-best position, thanks to reality series "Gladiators" and "The Celebrity Apprentice," a bushel of fresh "Law & Order" episodes and premieres such as "Lipstick Jungle" and the Internet import "Quarterlife."
ABC and CBS declined to make executives available for on-the-record interviews for this column, which may indicate some anxiety over their immediate scheduling prospects. CBS likely has some advantage because it depends more heavily on procedural shows, such as "CSI," that tend to perform better in repeats than serialized efforts. But it's not taking chances: CBS also recently ordered game shows "America's Top Dog" and "Secret Talents of the Stars."
Networks still don't know exactly how they'll fare over the next couple of months, because they're just now burning off the final pre-strike episodes of TV's most popular series, including "Grey's Anatomy," "Desperate Housewives" and "CSI: Crime Scene Investigation."
Already, we're seeing some weird displacements. Last Thursday brought the last new episodes of "ER" and "Without a Trace," but the ABC, CBS and NBC schedules were also larded with plenty of repeats. The result? Fox, which was all-new with the game shows "Are You Smarter Than a 5th Grader?" and "Don't Forget the Lyrics," won its first Thursday night in 15 years among young-adult viewers.
If the strike drags on much longer, there's always the chance that Americans really will destroy their TVs and find new interests. At least that's what a Galveston, Texas, parent suggested in a postcard sent last week to the Writers Guild of America offices in Los Angeles.
"Please stay on strike," the correspondent pleaded. "My daughter went from Cs to straight As!! Strike for the sake of the children!!!!!"
The Channel Island column runs every Monday in Calendar. Contact Scott Collins at scott.collins@ latimes.com