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What's Up with All the Low TV Ratings?

What's Up with All the Low TV Ratings?

It's been a tough spring for television, with shows hitting their season-low ratings left and right. The latest casualty is "Heroes," which plunged to third place in its time slot this week with its worst ratings ever. "24" wasn't far off its own season low. And I've already told you about the ratings woes of NBC, whose Thursday lineup recently hit an all-time low. It's May Sweeps, also known as television's biggest month; this isn't supposed to be happening!

I still have a lot to learn about TV ratings, but I have a few guesses about why so many shows appear to be tanking right now. Here are my best bets:

  • It's hard to come back from a hiatus. Many of the shows that have recorded recent lows also took an extended break at some point during the season. "Heroes" hit a low with its first episode back from hiatus two weeks ago. "Ugly Betty" also hit a series low after its break this spring. The bad news is that repeats are unavoidable, as long as TV networks continue following the traditional path of producing 22 or 23 episodes to air over the course of a nine-month TV season. Maybe airing a whole season uninterrupted, like ABC will be doing with the next three seasons of "Lost," will change things. (It didn't help "24," but hey, that show has its own problems.)
  • Two more reasons, so read more

  • People watch TV differently these days. The companies that track TV ratings are just starting to understand the impact of DVRs and online TV on the way people watch. Many ratings reports account for people who watch a show they've recorded on the same day it airs — but not, say, if they record "Desperate Housewives" on Sunday and watch it on Tuesday. When Nielsen released a report on time-shifted shows, "Lost," "Friday Night Lights" and "The Office" were among those that gained the most — and all three have struggled in the ratings. The problem? Advertisers don't care about time-shifters, who often fast-forward through ads. And even if they were included, it still wouldn't account for people who watch episodes online or buy shows from iTunes.
  • Networks have lost our trust. This year has been a particularly vicious one for TV viewers, as many shows have been yanked with little warning and no closure. After "Six Degrees," "Day Break," "Kidnapped," "Vanished," "Studio 60" and so many others, why should we bother giving "The Black Donnellys" or "Drive" a shot? There are a few positive examples of shows that got full seasons ("Friday Night Lights") and even got renewed ("30 Rock") despite low ratings, but they're the exception.

Then again, it could also be that lame Daylight Savings Time excuse "American Idol" used earlier this spring, but ... well, I doubt it. Tell me: What do you think is behind the ratings woes?

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