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Prime-Time's Fresh Start

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NEW YORK Viewers are returning to broadcast television prime time in sizable numbers as fresh episodes of the networks' most popular series begin returning to the airwaves following the prolonged writers' strike.
 
But advertising avails for the final six weeks of the season are tight and pricing remains 30-40 percent above upfront rates -- meaning an advertiser not already locked in may not be able to take advantage of May ratings that could equal or even beat last May.
 
CBS, which was first to bring back the most new episodes, saw viewer levels for the week ended April 6 equal its totals for the same week last year at 11.5 million per night. That's not to say CBS will salvage its season, since the network is down 21 percent among the key adults 18-49 demo. But the numbers are still encouraging to advertisers.
 
"That CBS has been able to rebound with its fresh episodes gives us a good feeling," said Harry Keeshan, evp, national broadcast at media agency PHD. "Its comedies returned well, as did all three CSI series. That gives us great hope that viewers are still coming to television to watch fresh product."
 
ABC and NBC were still down double digits in viewers for the week ended April 6 without new episodes of their shows. Fox was flat for that week in viewers, but for the season is up 5 percent in viewers to 10.7 million per night -- excluding the Super Bowl telecast, which would boost that average to 11.4 million.
 
On Thursday, April 10, the broadcast nets cumulatively drew 45 million viewers, just 3 million less than they were averaging prior to the strike, with a new episode of CSI and a special edition of Fox's American Idol drawing 19.9 million and 19.5 million viewers, respectively.
 
"As the networks put programming on that people want to see, the advertisers will follow the eyeballs," said Lyle Schwartz, evp, director of broadcast research at Mediaedge:cia. "But audience levels are still way down from last year, and the networks are going to have to revitalize some of their series or advertisers could start to reassess where they put their dollars."
 
Media agencies are hoping that despite the tight avail situation, the nets will continue to offer make goods where they can, as opposed to selling inventory at higher prices and moving make goods into next season, which they did at the start of this season. At least one network sales exec, who did not want to be named, vowed not to do that. "We need to be more responsible moving forward," he said.
 
Compounding the make-good situation, which has once again artificially tightened prices, are questions about the economy. "Every year, the upfront becomes more challenging," Schwartz said. "Last year, we had to negotiate based on a new currency. This year, we'll have to deal with the potential carryover effect of make goods and the economy."