U.S. TV networks have lost a quarter of their audience

Television networks in the United States have lost almost a quarter of their audiences due of the Hollywood writers’ strike, and executives fear that viewers may never return.

The Nielsen ratings organization found that U.S. viewership for the opening of the 2008 TV season was down 21 percent compared with the same time last year. Because the strike has shut down production of all scripted shows, the networks are now almost completely out of fresh material to broadcast.

For example, the CW network lost 50 percent of viewers in the 18- to 49-year-old bracket sampled by Nielsen. “It’s hard to ignore the declines,” said “Variety,” the Hollywood trade publication. The publication said the latest figures were the first real evidence of the damage from the strike because sporting events and Christmas holiday programming had skewed previous weeks.

The Hollywood work stoppage is costing the Los Angeles economy an estimated $20 million a day. Thousands are out of work. Small businesses, such as the props suppliers along Hollywood Boulevard, are struggling to stay afloat. The organizers of the Golden Globes lost $6 million in one night when their event was turned into a press conference because actors refused to cross writers’ picket lines to attend the awards.

Writers as well as studios are worried that lost viewers may never return to television, instead finding new ways to entertainm themselves, such as YouTube, Facebook or video games. The most recent figures show that YouTube has had an 18 percent surge in traffic, while visitor numbers to other Web sites, such as Crackle, have doubled, albeit from small bases.

During the last writers’ strike 20 years ago, about 10 percent of network TV viewers never returned, with most of them going to subscription cable channels such as HBO.