Lackluster Start to Season

Oct 12, 2008  •  Post A Comment

Three weeks into the fall broadcast television season, the networks find themselves competing not just with each other but with the biggest surprise hit in years: “The Barack and John Show.”
The combination of Campaign 2008 and an unusually small number of new fall shows has sucked air out of the hoped-for excitement surrounding the autumn launch. While many returning series are doing just fine, only four newcomers—Fox’s “Fringe,” CBS’s “The Mentalist,” ABC’s “Life on Mars” and CW’s “90210”—have shown a significant pulse so far.
“Mars” and “Mentalist” posted the largest drama premiere numbers this season, while the start of “90210” gave The CW its largest ratings in several demographics, including the network’s target women 18- to 34-year-old demo. Fox’s “Fringe” made its mark by posting the biggest week-to-week ratings gain in the history of prime-time broadcasting.
But unlike the folks on Wall Street, nobody’s panicking on Network Row. NBC still has several big guns to debut, while all the networks are loaded up with well-stocked midseason arsenals.
Here’s a network-by-network look at how broadcasters are doing so far:
Perhaps the biggest shocker of the season so far has been the performance of ABC’s returning Wednesday night lineup. Sophomore shows “Pushing Daisies,” “Private Practice” and “Dirty Sexy Money” all suffered big year-to-year declines.
Notably, “Daisies” dipped 55% premiere to premiere. “Private Practice” stumbled 37% from its big launch last year, and then its second outing slipped 21% week to week.
Stung by a writers strike-shortened season last year, these three shows are having a difficult time luring in viewers due to the serialized form of their storytelling, a handicap that NBC’s “Heroes” and Fox’s “Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles” are also struggling with.
While the sophomores are limping, ABC may have a winner in “Life on Mars,” which launched with the highest-rated new drama premiere this season in adults 18-49.
ABC’s workhorse, “Dancing With the Stars,” continues to drum up significant numbers, while “Desperate Housewives” still commands a lead in adults 18-49 on Sunday against fierce competition from football and Fox’s animation block.
“Grey’s Anatomy” launched in late September down 18% in adults 18-49 compared with last year’s premiere. “CSI’s” start last week further took the wind out of “Anatomy’s” sails, as the show dipped 26% in the same demographic from this season’s premiere.
For the first two weeks of the season, ABC holds first place in adults 18-49 with an average 3.3 rating/9 share average and second place in total viewers with 10.7 million.
Year-to-year, the network is down 11% in adults 18-49 and 6% in total viewers.
Stability and tradition have long been hallmarks of CBS’s programming strategy, and that’s certainly the case this fall. The network debuted more new shows than any other broadcaster last month, relying heavily on sitcoms and crime dramas. With the return of “CSI” last week, it has brought back all of its veterans as well. (ABC and NBC are still rolling out their returning series.)
So far, playing it safe is working for CBS. New drama “The Mentalist” is off to a solid start, nearly tying ABC’s “Dancing With the Stars” in total viewers in its second week, and will very likely be given a full-season order this week, according to industry observers. The network’s Monday comedies returned strongly, and the delayed premiere of “CSI” last week trounced “Grey’s Anatomy.”
But like all the networks, CBS is having some trouble getting viewers to flock to its newcomers. Comedy “Worst Week” has been sluggish out of the gate, and “Eleventh Hour” failed to impress behind “CSI” last week. CBS will be paying close attention to the younger demographics on Friday drama “The Ex List.”
Kelly Kahl, the senior executive vice president of programming operations at CBS, believes it’s “still way too early to tell” how the overall season will play out after just three weeks. He’s very satisfied with his network’s early performance, however.
“Our returning shows have shown incredible resilience, with many performing above last fall’s numbers,” Mr. Kahl said.
In the first two weeks of the season, CBS is in the top spot in terms of total viewers with an average of 11.2 million, down 3% from this time last year. In adults 18-49, CBS is tied for second with NBC with a 3.1/8 average, down 9%.
“Fringe” is the word on Fox’s lips this season.
The sci-fi show premiered by itself in early September to above-average ratings. Settling into its usual time slot after “House,” “Fringe” set the largest week one to week two increase in recorded Nielsen history. The two shows have led Fox to several Tuesday victories in adults 18-49 so far this season.
Encouraged by the results, Fox signed “Fringe” for a full order of 22 episodes earlier in the month, the second pickup so far of the 2008-09 season.
The network also enjoyed continued success from “Bones,” despite its new home on Wednesdays, and its Sunday animation block in adults 18-34.
On the flip side, Fox is home to the first casualty of the season with the cancellation of “Do Not Disturb.” “Disturb’s” companion on Wednesdays, “’Til Death,” is producing weak numbers, frequently placing last in adults 18-49 in its time period against other first-run programming, and could be on the chopping block next.
Fox’s Monday night lineup of “Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles” and “Prison Break” could also use some ratings improvement. The two frequently post fair numbers, but “Break,” in its fourth season, has seen significant ratings erosion, down 18% in adults 18-49 from its premiere last year.
“Terminator” did well during its premiere season in January, but ratings deteriorated 27% in adults 18-49 from its last original episode in March to its season premiere in September. Preston Beckman, Fox’s executive vice president of strategic program planning and research, said the network is going to stick with the shows through the fourth quarter.
He said because “Terminator” and “Break” have continuing story arcs that aren’t close-ended episode-to-episode, it makes it difficult to recruit new viewers.
“These are niche shows,” he said.
The shows are also heavily watched using digital video recorders and on the Web, which makes it difficult to know what their real audience is, Mr. Beckman said.
In contrast to the other networks, Fox is working in a slightly different capacity in the fourth quarter, essentially setting the stage for “American Idol” and “24” to return in January.
Currently in fourth place, Fox is flat year-to-year in total viewers (7 million) and up one-tenth of a point in adults 18-49 (2.8/8).
NBC rightly points out that many of its big new shows won’t premiere until this month, making it difficult to accurately gauge the network’s early fall performance. But there are still some signs of trouble for the Peacock.
“Heroes” is still a hit, tying “CSI: Miami” as the highest-rated drama of the night last Monday. But it shows no sign of returning to its season one status as a phenomenon. Critically beloved dramedy “Chuck” is struggling in a super-tough Monday 8 p.m. time slot. And the revival of “Knight Rider” hasn’t shown the same zoom-zoom as last spring’s TV movie.
On the positive tip, “Sunday Night Football” continues to draw eyeballs to NBC, while the network’s Thursday night comedy lineup is doing fine. The block’s most recent airing gave NBC its highest non-sports-related Thursday in adults 18-49 since March. “The Office” is strong, and the first of three “Saturday Night Live Weekend Update Thursday” specials did great last week, improving the time period in adults 18-49 by 50% versus last season’s average. NBC executives are holding their breath over this week’s debut of “My Own Worst Enemy,” which represents the network’s best chance to launch a breakout scripted hit this fall.
“Is everything working as well as we want? Of course not,” said NBC scheduling chief Mitch Metcalf. “But we love our shows and are going to show continued patience. With the lingering effects of a long strike, the DVR explosion and countless viewer distractions, we need to let viewers find our shows and spread the word.”
Mr. Metcalf added that NBC will be paying close attention to DVR data, which is released weeks after overnight ratings, as well as numbers among upscale viewers. He also notes that shows such as “Heroes” and “Chuck” had been off the air for nearly a year when they returned.
Two weeks in, NBC is down 16% year-to-year in adults 18-49 with a 3.1/8 average, but tied for second with ABC. In total viewers, NBC is in third place, averaging 8.1 million viewers, down 16% from last year.
If the broadcast week only contained Monday through Wednesday, The CW would be doing monumentally well.
Early-week tentpoles “90210,” “Gossip Girl” and “America’s Next Top Model” are producing solid numbers in the network’s key women 18- to 34-year-old demographic. “90210” set The CW’s highest rating in the demo during its premiere in early September, while “Girl” continues to grow week-to-week, setting the show’s second-highest rating among women 18-34 during its last original airing.
Moving to Thursday through Sunday, the news isn’t so stellar.
Thursday’s “Supernatural” and “Smallville” are relatively stable from last year. The shows are facing tough competition from the rest of the networks on that night, making it difficult to post anything substantial in the ratings.
Returns were low for the premiere of The CW’s Media Right Capital-backed Sunday lineup, tying the anemic starts of last year’s “Online Nation” and “Life is Wild.” MRC shoulders the burden of programming the time slots, which lowers costs for The CW. If the shows flop, The CW isn’t out anything financially.
The loss of “Friday Night Smackdown” to MyNetworkTV put a crimp on Fridays. The CW lost 61% of viewers from “Smackdown’s” final Friday on the network to the following week. The night did improve 10% in women 18-34.
Despite the downturn on Friday and the low Sunday start, The CW is essentially even with last year’s start in adults 18-34, but has grown 27% in women 18-34.
(Editor: Baumann. Updates second and third paragraphs to include “Fringe.”)


  1. Life on Mars was really good, probably the best new show this season. I’ve been pretty disappointed with the new shows this season, even the returning ones. Life on Mars will hold me over until Lost begins.

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