Election, Economy Only Primetime Hits

Presidential campaign, financial meltdown dominate as new and returning shows fall short of even modest goals

Few industry insiders were expecting great things from the ratings for the new fall season, but the one-two punch of an electric election season and a darkening economy isn't making life any easier for network entertainment divisions.

A lack of new product, and the return of several shows that may not have been back but for the writers' strike, had already inspired only modest fall season expectations for the broadcast networks. But no one could have predicted the buzz surplus snapped up by a financial meltdown and an election featuring the most talked-about vice presidential debate since Ross Perot's 1992 running mate, Adm. James Stockdale, took on Al Gore and Dan Quayle.

“The new fall season has a hit—the election—and it's the biggest reality show, with many elements of drama, some of comedy and a new plotline of an economic crisis,” says Campbell Mithun senior VP John Rash.

While there have been bright spots such as Fox's Fringewhich last week got a full-season order—and CBS's The Mentalist, the slim rookie class has been quiet. And many returning shows that had strike-induced hiatuses have returned to disappointing numbers.

“Program premieres of the new fall season have almost completely failed to capture the imagination, not just of the public, but even of core viewers,” Rash adds.

Especially standing out this season have been the soft returns of some of the networks' most-promoted fare. NBC's Heroes got off to a troubling start two weeks ago, and Chuck failed to impress last week.

ABC's Wednesday-night lineup of sophomores struggled last week, including critical darling Pushing Daisies, which finished fourth in its time slot with just a 2.0 average in the adult 18-49 demo.

“I'm not surprised they wouldn't be that big because they didn't generate a lot of big interest the first time around,” Carat Senior VP of Programming Shari Anne Brill says of the second-year shows.

Think 'Patience'

Though Fox pulled the plug early on Do Not Disturb, network execs have kept up the “patience” chant they began long before anyone had heard of Sarah Palin.

“The whole thing is patience, at least until the election and the immediate crisis passes,” says one network chief. “People are so preoccupied that I don't think anyone will develop strong viewing habits.”

Many industry observers agree the season won't start in earnest until November, and not because of sweeps. As Brill puts it: “Once the baseball playoffs and the election are behind us, that will be the critical indicator for the fall season.”