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America stays at home

It was only one week, but in one small way, it was a good one. Amid unsettled times, the broadcast networks rolled out their new and returning series last week and got the 2001-2002 season off to a surprisingly impressive start.

Veteran sitcoms like Friends, Everybody Loves Raymond
and Frasier
returned with strong and even record-breaking premieres. Such dramas as Law & Order, The Practice, ER
and JAG
popped in the ratings and newsmagazines 60 Minutes II, 20/20
and Dateline NBC
drew bigger numbers than normal. Newcomers like Inside Schwartz, The Education of Max Bickford, Crossing Jordan
and Enterprise
played to large audiences.

Overall—broadcasting and cable—more people were watching TV last week than were watching during the same weeks of 1999 and 2000.

A few new series struggled, including NBC's Emeril,
and reality shows appear to have lost some of their luster (see sidebar, page 6), but overall network executives and advertisers were pleased and optimistic.

"This is clearly terrific news for network television. People want to watch our prime time shows," says NBC Entertainment President Jeff Zucker. "People are looking for a diversion, they want to laugh, they want to get lost in their favorite programs and clearly what's going on is people need their old friends both literally and figuratively."

Says Fox's Preston Beckman: "There is a reason why we have premiere weeks. Viewers know that come mid-September the networks start bringing back their favorite shows and introducing new ones. They just know it. It's like in the DNA of this culture."

But not every network executive was overly excited after the first week.

"Let's remember it's still early and we have only had a few shows premiere," says ABC Entertainment's co-Chair Lloyd Braun. "I think it's certainly encouraging that viewers have been coming back, but the situation is obviously fluid. World events are still very, very fragile and I for one am still holding my breath."

Network executives say they expect at least some prime time pre-emptions over the next several months because of the U.S. war on terrorism. Nonetheless, they are determined to move forward with their entertainment schedules as planned.

Houses Using Television (HUT) levels were up during each of the first three nights of the season from the previous two seasons. On Monday, HUT levels were at 66.7%, Tuesday at 64.8% and Wednesday they were at 63.5%. Against the same week last year when NBC carried the Summer Olympics, the first three nights (Monday through Wednesday) were up an average of 2%, while they were up 4% on average from the first week of the season in 1999.

The positive signs at the networks couldn't have come at a better time, as the six biggest are coming off an upfront ad-selling season that produced $1 billion less in ad revenue and the loss of millions more because of non-stop news coverage in the wake of the attacks.

"I think the networks will have to be happy with these numbers," says Tom DeCabia, executive vice president at media buyer Advanswers PHD. "These shows have to perform for them and get off the ground. They are getting the sampling they need. It's been a promising first week."

An Initiative Media survey conducted in the wake of the attacks found that 35% of Americans are more likely to stay at home and watch TV now. The same survey found that 25% of Americans are less likely to go out to see a movie or live entertainment.

But will it mean more money for the networks?

"Short-term, I don't think it will have an effect on how much new money will come to the networks because everyone pretty much had a plan and they are either carrying it out or not as a result of what has happened," says Initiative Media's Tim Spengler.

"The fact that the ratings are a little higher or a little lower is not in the short-term, going to jump-start the ad economy, particularly as it pertains to national TV. If the networks continue to hold ratings or grow ratings over time, more money will be planned for the networks."

During the first week, veteran dramas and comedies stole much of the limelight from the newcomers. NBC's Friends
opened the year with a whopping 31 million viewers and 15.2/42 in 18-49, while CBS comedy Everybody Loves Raymond
opened its sixth season with its most-watched and highest-rated episode ever, averaging 22.8 million viewers and an 8.4 rating/19 share in 18-49, according to Nielsen Media Research. (Raymond
also scored big in syndication. See page 19.)

The Practice's
two-hour season premiere averaged 17.8 million viewers and a 6.8/15 in 18-49. Law & Order
came back with 20.7 million viewers and a 7.5/20 in 18-49, Frasier
drew 19.6 million viewers and an 8.4/20 in 18-49. ER
followed with 26.6 million with a 14.3/35 in 18-49.

The newsmagazines have been up as well. CBS's 60 Minutes II
started the season with 13.1 million viewers, 20/20
averaged 11.2 million viewers and Dateline NBC's
Tuesday episode averaged 12.6 million viewers and a time period best 5.6/14 in 18-49.

As for the new shows, NBC's new Thursday night comedy Inside Schwartz,
which occupies the plum slot after Friends, attracted the largest audience of all newcomers, 22 million viewers with 11.1/29 in 18-49, but the viewership count was down 9 million from Friends.

CBS's drama The Education of Max Bickford, which follows 60 Minutes, averaged 16.5 million viewers and a 4.4/11 in 18-49. NBC's Crossing Jordan
(15.7 million and 6.1/15 in 18-49), CBS's The Guardian
(15.5 million and 4.2/10 in 18-49) and ABC's Philly
(13.6 million and 5.3/14 in 18-49) all posted strong numbers. UPN's new Star Trek series Enterprise
brought the network its second-highest ratings ever, averaging 12.5 million viewers and a 6.3/16 in 18-49. "In this day and age, networks don't have a lot of time to test new shows, they aren't as patient as they once were," says Initiative Media's Spengler. "You really need to get some traction in the first two or three episodes or you are going to be in trouble."

Fox's new comedy Undeclared
drew only 9 million viewers, but scored a strong 5.1/13 in adults 18-49 in its debut. CBS's The Ellen Show
got a special Monday night launch (its regular slot is on Friday) and averaged 13.8 million viewers and a 5.8/13 in adults 18-49. NBC's Emeril
was the least watched new show at the major networks, averaging 8.7 million viewers and a 3.5/10.

"Obviously I would have liked it to have started with a little bigger number," says NBC's Zucker. "But if it's where it ends up, we will be thrilled. We just have to make sure that happens."