Some programs this fall are delivering very strong ratings. Just not new programs. If TV executives want encouragement from the numbers, they have to turn to football and returning series.
Two weeks into the fall TV season, the broadcast networks have gotten off to one of their most sluggish starts ever. For the first time in at least five years, not a single new show has cracked the top 10 either among total viewers or the advertising-friendly demographic of adults age 18 to 49, according to the Nielsen Co.
Even CBS' remake of Hawaii Five-0, with its familiar brand name and 10 p.m. Monday time slot, has failed to sizzle and has tumbled compared with CSI: Miami
Then there are the outright bombs. After two airings Fox axed its critically acclaimed drama
about a Texas con man, Lone Star. A pair of episodes was likewise all it took for ABC to yank the critically unheralded youth soap My Generation. Industry watchers predict that ABC's legal drama The Whole Truth and NBC's Jimmy Smits vehicle Outlawwill be next on the road to oblivion. As a result, Fox — the No. 1 network among young adults for several years running — and ABC saw their premiere-week ratings slide by double digits compared with a year ago.
As is customary, poor marketing has been cited as a factor in the demise of some new shows, especially Lone Star. In that case, network promotion experts were presented the difficult task of trying to persuade a recession-weary public to care about a hotshot young crook who two-timed his wife and bilked people out of their life savings.
But there may be a simpler explanation: The new shows just aren't that good. Even before the season started, TV executives and critics alike grumbled that the freshman class lacked any series with breakout potential. Viewers seem to agree, at least so far.
“There simply weren't many shows with positive preseason buzz,” said Steve Sternberg, a veteran TV analyst who writes a subscription-based newsletter for media buyers. “I keep reading how the press is surprised about Lone Star, but I don't know a single one of my peers who thought it would do well.”
The legacy networks also face a tougher job these days because cable rivals now churn out so much original programming during the summer, blunting the effect of the broadcasters' marketing push. In July, TNT's Rizzoli & Isles — the kind of star-driven crime franchise broadcasters used to own exclusively — set a record as the most-watched cable series launch ever, with 7.6 million total viewers.
“Fewer and fewer people are watching each broadcast net [network] during the summer,” Sternberg said. “Their stubborn refusal to cross-promote one another's shows, as cable has done so effectively for years, is the main reason ratings aren't higher for new shows. I'll bet that most people never even heard of more than two or three of the new series.”
Yet while the new shows clearly have disappointed, there are still positive signs for the networks. Chief among them: The overall erosion in viewership for broadcast TV appears to be slowing at last. The five over-the-air, English-language networks (ABC, CBS, Fox, NBC, and CW) are still down in total viewers compared with year-ago figures, but it's by the smallest amount — 2 percent — in at least four seasons.
Viewers have turned out in droves for favorite returning shows, such as Fox's high school musical Glee, which is soaring to record ratings in its second season. Meanwhile, NFL games on CBS, NBC, and Fox, as well as ESPN are hitting all-time highs.
“Many viewers opted for familiar favorites versus the newbies that launched against them,” said Shari Anne Brill, an independent media analyst who pointed to the hard-fought battleground of 9 p.m. Mondays, where Lone Star got crushed against ABC's Dancing With the Stars and CBS' comedy block.
CBS has done a particularly good job of hanging on to its audience. Ratings for its premiere week were flat compared with last year's among young adults, even though it took a big hit by downgrading CSI: NY to Friday nights. One savvy move that paid off was switching the hit sitcom The Big Bang Theory from Mondays to Thursdays, giving the network a successful comedy block on the latter night for the first time in decades.
NBC was the only network to show premiere-week growth, up 11 percent in young adults. True, much of that was because of last year's disastrous experiment putting Jay Leno in prime time, which made it relatively easy to put up better numbers this time around.
And it's far too early to count out all the new series. No Ordinary Family still could grow into a solid performer for ABC; ditto the sitcom Raising Hope for Fox and NBC's Law & Order: Los Angeles.
As Brill pointed out, “Successful early returns in Week 1 are not necessarily a predictor for success. ... There have been many shows with great premises and promising pilots that were not executed well in subsequent episodes. Remember Flash Forward? And how about that show Joey?”