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Prime-Time Ratings Keep Angst at Bay

Sep 28, 2008  •  Post A Comment

It could have been a lot worse.
That’s the bottom line from the first few days of the 2008-09 television season, which got under way last week amidst a higher-than-normal level of angst among network suits. With so many shows taking nine-month hiatuses due to the writers strike, and fewer newcomers than normal, there had been fears that the new season would land with a thud.
That didn’t happen. In fact, the first Monday of the season saw the Big Five networks actually attract about 1.3 million more viewers than the previous year’s opener.
What’s more, a number of returning shows—including “How I Met Your Mother,” “Criminal Minds” and “Boston Legal”—bettered or matched their year-ago numbers. ABC’s strategy of waltzing through premiere week with three nights of “Dancing With the Stars” proved smart, with the show dominating its trio of time slots.
And on Thursday, while all the networks’ biggest guns were down from last fall, shows such as “Grey’s Anatomy” posted gains over their post-strike ratings.
“I think by and large people came back to network TV, and that was a good sign,” said Kelly Kahl, senior executive VP of programming operations at CBS. “There’s still a lot to premiere, [but] so far reports of network TV’s death are greatly exaggerated.”
Mr. Kahl and other observers pointed to the hard-to-quantify impact on ratings from newer technologies such as digital video recorders and streaming.
“Given that DVR penetration is up 10 points from a year ago, the fact that any show is up over a year ago is a pretty impressive feat,” he said.
Tim Kring, creator and executive producer of NBC’s “Heroes,” agrees, arguing that Nielsen junkies looking for a quick data fix need to be patient. His show, while matching its season finale numbers from last December, was down more than 25% from its year-ago season two premiere.
But, “All the ballots have not been counted yet on ‘Heroes,’” Mr. Kring argued. “We have taught the audience how to watch our show on all these different platforms: DVRs, downloads, DVDs, streaming. Our audience is the one fleeing traditional TV. It’s a pretty substantial number when all of those things come in.”
A Few Clouds
All is not upbeat on the network front, however.
So far, none of this season’s freshmen seem to be breakout hits, a la “Heroes” or even last year’s “Private Practice.” And one—the Fox comedy “Do Not Disturb”—has already been canceled.
There also were signs that some long-running hits have started to run out of steam. NBC’s “Law & Order: SVU” delivered its worst premiere numbers ever, in part due to heavier-than-normal competition from a special two-hour “Dancing With the Stars.” And in its first Tuesday outing, CBS’ “Without a Trace” was off a huge 40% from its year-ago Thursday numbers.
Among last week’s debuts, CBS’ “The Mentalist” (3.5/9 in adults 18 to 49, 15.6 million total viewers, according to Nielsen Media Research) sparkled the most. While a tad older-skewing, it could prove to be a strong fit on the Eye network’s Tuesday lineup if those numbers hold up.
Last week’s other debuts were pretty lackluster.
Despite strong critical notices and an extensive marketing campaign, CBS comedy “Worst Week” (3.8/8, 10.87 million) didn’t stand out in its first at-bat, losing more than a quarter of its “Two and a Half Men” lead-in among adults 18 to 49. But CBS executives like the show a lot and seem willing to be patient.
The network also is adopting a wait-and-see attitude toward its new Wednesday “Happy Hour” comedy block, which didn’t produce much giddiness in its first week. Newcomer “Gary Unmarried” (2.4/7, 6.82 million) improved a tad on its lead-in, “The New Adventures of Old Christine,” but both shows got hammered by a Wednesday edition of ABC’s “Dancing With the Stars.” The latter series reverts to a Monday-Tuesday schedule this week, giving CBS hope that it can pick up some of the audience “Dancing” attracted last Wednesday.
NBC’s big debut last week, “Knight Rider” (2.5/7, 7.35 million), demonstrated little vroom-vroom, despite some nice young male demos. And ABC’s game show “Opportunity Knocks” (1.8/5, 6.56 million) failed to ring any doorbells in its first outing.
Some big new shows that debuted early—Fox’s “Fringe” and The CW’s “90210”—declined a bit last week, not surprising given the ferocity of the competition. But both shows continue to look solid, with “90210” garnering the first full-season pickup of the 2008-09 campaign.
Overall, network insiders expect ABC likely will win premiere week, with CBS, NBC and Fox not far behind.
Of course, it’s worth remembering that a year ago at this time, NBC executives were feeling fine about the strong debut of “Bionic Woman.” Fox folks were smiling over the nice numbers for “K-Ville.” And CBS still had reason to think “Cane” could be sweet on Tuesday nights. All three shows were canceled.
So much for the importance of premiere-week ratings.

One Comment

  1. I loved Heroes last year. I couldn’t get into it this year. So I quickly turned the channel.
    Cain last year started off as a good lawyer show, ended up being about his spoiled daughter. I stopped watching.
    I’ve stopped watching American Idol that was down in the ratings again last year.
    I do like NCIS on CBS. I don’t like Criminal Minds as well as I did when Gideon was on the show. I could go on, but won’t. Thanks for a place to tell my side.

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