Should we do this strike thing more often? Well, no, but some scripted hits like ABC’s Lost and NBC’s Saturday Night Live have experienced surprising ratings swells well into and after the long, cold work stoppage. ”There was definitely anticipation for a great scripted series to come back,” says Jeff Bader, ABC’s exec VP of entertainment. ”There was a pent-up demand.” That’s welcome news after months of depressed viewership and talk that TV audiences would give up on the medium forever.
SNL’s Feb. 23 return with host Tina Fey drew an estimated 7 million viewers, 36 percent above pre-strike original episodes — the show’s best numbers since its Feb. 4, 2006, broadcast featuring Steve Martin and Prince. And with a volatile election still in full swing, the momentum should continue. ”Political seasons are gold for the show,” says Mitch Metcalf, NBC’s exec VP of scheduling. ”As a viewer, I couldn’t wait for it to get on the air because there was so much material in the news.” Lost, meanwhile, returned with its own creative resurgence (flash-forwards!) and the ratings to go with it: 16.1 million viewers watched its Jan. 31 season premiere, outperforming its last-season average by more than 2 million — and solidifying ABC’s Thursday power position so much that it’ll stay put on the night (sliding up to 10 p.m.) even when Grey’s Anatomy and Ugly Betty return in late April.
In fact, big players have the best chance of not only surviving post-strike, but thriving on fans’ desperation for fresh programming. Smaller series, on the other hand, could end up the victims. ”The bubble shows will be the question marks,” Bader says. ”We’re going to spend a lot of time marketing these shows coming back, but you can only do that for so many shows.” October Road devotees, brace yourselves.