Only three weeks into the TV season and two definitive trends have emerged: Mark Harmon is hot and serialized dramas are not. Almost every show that was pushed into hiatus after last season’s 100-day writers’ strike has returned to troubling ratings this fall, including all of ABC’s Wednesday-night lineup: Private Practice is down 44 percent in viewers (from 14.4 million to 8 million), Pushing Daisies is off 52 percent (13 million to 6.3 million), and Dirty Sexy Money has dropped 32 percent (10.5 million to 7.1 million). The news is almost as bad for NBC’s Chuck and Life, both off the air since last winter — they’re down 26 and 30 percent, respectively. Even a shirtless Mohinder couldn’t stop the bleeding on Heroes; the series returned Sept. 22 after nine months off, drawing only 60 percent of its 17 million viewers from last season.
Those who squeezed out a few episodes last spring, though, are seeing different fortunes. CBS fired up its regular schedule after the labor dispute ended in February, and most of its veteran shows have posted double-digit gains in viewers. Harmon’s NCIS is up 17 percent, while How I Met Your Mother climbed 14 percent. (Another sizable increase: The CW’s Gossip Girl, which aired for five weeks after the strike concluded, has shot up 23 percent.) Still, ABC insists it didn’t make a tactical error by tabling its first-year dramas. ”The shows would have come back after the strike for three episodes, at most, before the season ended and would have been up against American Idol,” argues one network exec. ”There wasn’t much chance that things would have gone well.” Trouble is, today the situation doesn’t look any better.