Don't laugh. That's what the networks are praying for.
Conventional wisdom has it that the fall TV season was undermined by the huge and unprecedented interest in the historic presidential campaign between President-elect Barack Obama and Sen. John McCain. People spent much of their free time watching political news on CNN, Fox News and MSNBC -- and given the importance of the issues now confronting the nation, it was tough to blame them. But now, this line of thinking goes, these politics-besotted folk will suddenly bolt upright, realize with chagrin that they've missed whole episodes of, say, “Knight Rider” and plop themselves down for hours of contented catch-up viewing.
"The election did, on most nights, take away from the urgency to view prime-time television," NBC Executive Vice President Mitch Metcalf told me.
But will viewers now return? A lot is riding on the answer. The midseason is fast approaching, and Metcalf and other executives are facing tough decisions this month on a number of marginal series facing extinction.
Dramas eyed for cancellation include ABC's "Dirty Sexy Money" and "Pushing Daisies" as well as NBC's "Lipstick Jungle." And CBS is set to make decisions this week on the new comedy “Worst Week,” a critically acclaimed show that's underperformed on Mondays, and -- probably safer bets for full-season orders -- the sitcom "Gary Unmarried" and crime drama "Eleventh Hour." (Several new shows have already been renewed for the full season, including CBS' "The Mentalist," NBC's "Kath & Kim" and "Knight Rider," and CW's "90210.")
More generally, the networks just need to catch a break. For the last year, it's been one darn thing after another. A three-month writers strike started a year ago, interrupting the season and spawning low ratings in the winter and spring. The summer failed to deliver a big unscripted hit, as it has in the past. And the presidential campaign, plus the Wall Street meltdown, diverted viewers' attention in September and October.
And although CBS has been able to hold onto its audience this fall (its rivals have logged some double-digit drops), the dynamics of the season are likely to be upended again when Fox's "American Idol" returns Jan. 13.
So the question of whether post-election entertainment viewing is about to recover has taken on great importance for broadcasters, who have been in a sort of ratings recession of their own for the last year.
But it's hardly clear that the election is the reason for the networks' woes this fall.
There's abundant evidence that the presidential campaign consumed enormous amounts of viewers' attention. In October, the combined prime-time audiences for CNN, Fox News and MSNBC averaged 8.6 million total viewers, compared with just 3 million in October 2007, according to Nielsen Media Research. (Nielsen reported that the number of people using TV was 2% higher this fall than last fall, but part of that is attributable to natural population increase.)In other words, according to one school of thought, nearly 6 million viewers were, presumably because of the election, subtracted from the available audience pool to watch entertainment programs compared with last season. That could account for some of the unexpectedly low numbers that networks have seen for shows such as "Daisies," "Heroes" and even "Dancing With the Stars."
And in fact, cable news competition was only part of it. Three presidential debates and one vice-presidential debate disrupted weeknight programming just as networks were struggling to build viewership for the new lineups.
"In the first four weeks of the season, each week one night was taken out by a debate," CBS research guru David Poltrack told me. "That hurt the continuity of returning shows, increased the ratings of the cable news networks and increased the competitiveness of entertainment cable channels" because they offered choices to viewers not interested in the debates.
It's obvious the election had an impact on TV viewing, but it would be a mistake to assume that now everything will revert to normal -- whatever "normal" means in an era of time-shifted viewing, fragmented audiences and abundant Internet competition.
For starters, take those 6 million news-obsessed viewers supposedly lost to the broadcasters last month. Skeptics point out that those people may never have been big consumers of network entertainment shows in the first place. Instead, they may represent households whose TV-watching is usually light to nonexistent. Yet this election was so intense, they were spurred to switch on CNN or Fox. Now that the election is over, their remotes will once again collect dust.
"You're assuming all of them were watching the networks [previously], and that's not necessarily true," said Fox scheduling chief Preston Beckman. "I've never bought into the view that ratings are down because people are interested in politics."
He argues that if ratings have disappointed this season, it's probably due more to the lingering effects of the strike. Networks didn't premiere nearly as many new series, instead opting to re-launch shows such as "Dirty Sexy Money" or "Samantha Who?," so viewers didn't show up like they usually do.
Programming was interrupted again for last Tuesday's election results. So what happened over the next two nights, as regular schedules returned?
Well, Wednesday was a disaster. A "Dancing With the Stars" results show -- preempted from Tuesday -- slipped to a near-record low. CBS' "Criminal Minds" and "CSI: NY" did their worst numbers so far this season. And the 19th season premiere of NBC's "Law & Order" crashed to a record low.
But Poltrack said this was in keeping with historic patterns. In 2004, viewing of news programs remained high the day after the election, as viewers digested analysis of what happened at the ballot box. But after that, people started watching TV again like they usually did.
(The 2000 election was a little different, as people stayed glued to their sets as the recount dragged on.)
Lo and behold, by Thursday of last week, network TV seemed to be perking up again. Shows like "Grey's Anatomy" and "ER" weren't setting any record highs -- but they weren't setting any record lows either. And at this point, even stability has to be counted as a victory.
As Poltrack said, sounding both sincere and hopeful: "It's going to take a little while for people to get back to normal viewing patterns."
The Channel Island column runs every Monday in Calendar. Contact Scott Collins at scott.collins@ latimes.com.