"Ugly Betty’s" ratings get ugly

Trouble ahead: It looks like the party’s over for ABC’s Ugly Betty, as the series appears to heading for a ratings free fall.

Last Thursday’s episode hit a season low, earning a 2.3 rating and 7 share in the Adults 18-49 money demo, and 7.9 million total viewers. The results were down 30 percent in total viewers and 35 percent in 18-49 from May 3, 2007’s telecast (which were slumping down even then.) The mediocre numbers were enough to land the show in the loser’s circle for the first time in Marc Berman’s Programming Insider.

Analysis: To be fair, a lot of scripted shows are off in the ratings since their return from the writer’s strike. But in Ugly Betty’s case, their ratings have been declining even before the strike began.

Personally, I would have moved Ugly Betty to another time slot – perhaps to Wednesday at 8 p.m. (Central) to face off against NBC’s Bionic Woman – though Betty would have to go against Fox’s American Idol later in the season. Grey’s Anatomy spin-off Private Practice – which currently holds the Wednesday 8 p.m. time period – should have been slotted after Grey’s, at 9 p.m. on Thursdays.

While a 8 p.m. move does not guarantee success (ABC’s crime drama The Rookies was moved to an 8 p.m. Tuesday time slot in September 1975 from Monday at 7 p.m. because of the arrival of the “family hour” mandate – which cost the show ratings and was subsequently canceled), putting Ugly Betty on in the middle of prime time and in a more adult time slot this season would have served the show better. Instead, the program is languishing in its current time slot, where it is outrated by Survivor, Fifth Grader, and whatever program Univision is airing.

Another problem is the overuse of guest stars. The producers are in talks to have Lindsey Lohan appear either in one episode or a story arc. When you try to land tabloid stars as guests, there is a whiff of desperation in the air (though it did work for How I Met Your Mother and Britney Spears.)

And when they use some of those those guest stars, the results sometimes backfire. The recent use of talented actress Gabrielle Union in a story arc, where she played a psychotic lover of Daniel (Eric Marbus), was clearly a stereotypical “crazy black woman” role, and was straight out of a Tyler Perry movie – reducing her to nothing more than a cartoon character. Another guest star in Thursday’s episode was a recent Project Runway winner. Since I don’t watch the show, I didn’t know who he was. While Runway is a hit with viewers on Bravo (it’s moving to Lifetime next year), it’s not a mass-appeal hit.

So far, one change has been made. Rebecca Romijn’s character has been drastically scaled back, and is expected to make only make a few appearances next year. Many more could follow. Either way, Ugly Betty needs a dramatic, fashion-like makeover for next season – before the writers go in real desperation mode by having Betty fall in love with her boss. If that happens, it will head into the – oh, I ‘m going to say it again – “Jump the Shark” territory Grey’s, The Simpsons, and Family Guy have ventured into recently. The only difference is, those three are still going to be around while Ugly Betty won’t.