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Breakout 'NCIS’ Tops Fall Surprises

The most-watched show of the season so far is not a hotly promoted new entry or even the top-rated drama from last year. It’s CBS’ NCIS, now in its seventh season and featuring a star (Mark Harmon) who is pushing 60.

NCIS had its highest-rated episode ever on Sept. 29, pulling in more than 21 million viewers and winning the hour among the 18-49 demographic coveted by advertisers. On Oct. 6, it pulled in 20.7 million total viewers. NCIS was in ascendancy last season, averaging 17.9 million viewers (based on a live-plus-seven-day average), but it’s nevertheless unusual for a show in its seventh season to hit a ratings pinnacle.

“It’s hard to put your finger on,” says Brad Adgate, senior VP of research at Horizon Media. “It certainly defies convention.”

“In our minds, it’s unprecedented,” says Kelly Kahl, executive VP of program planning and scheduling for CBS. “This isn’t something you typically see in year six or year seven of a show. The other interesting thing is the demos have kind of come along with it. I think for quite a while everybody acknowledged that it was a nice performer, but now it’s the number-one show [in viewers] and top 10 in 18-49 and 25-54.”

NCIS has traditionally held up well against Fox’s American Idol, which bows in January. If NCIS maintains its current audience levels, the two most-watched shows on broadcast television could be on Tuesday night.

“It used to be the two most-watched shows were Thursdays at 9 o’clock,” Adgate adds. “Now it could be Tuesdays. What’s wrong with this picture?”

The success of comedy this season has also been a welcome change of pace for broadcast television, which has for years struggled to live up to the sitcom heydays of the 1980s and ’90s. Sitcoms traditionally attract a younger audience, which advertisers pay more to reach, and they repeat much better than dramas (especially serialized formats), which makes them an important component of a network schedule from a revenue standpoint.

ABC, which has been in the comedy wilderness for years, has ordered full seasons of The Middle, Modern Family and Cougar Town.

Family is holding its own on Wednesdays, and while Cougar Town did not receive the critical kudos that Family did, it is holding on to nearly 100% of its Family lead-in each week. The Oct. 7 episode of Family was second in the time slot (3.4/9 in the demo), behind CBS’ Criminal Minds.

In its third season, CBS’ The Big Bang Theory has established itself as a bona fide hit. The show was a sleeper success last summer, when reruns began airing at 9:30 after Two and a Half Men. So far this year, the show is up in all key demos as well as total viewers. The Oct. 5 episode won its time period in the 18-49 demo (4.5/10) and has held on to most of its premiere audience, notching more than 12 million total viewers.

The networks, Adgate adds, “have really struggled with comedy. It’s nice to see they haven’t given up on the genre. I’m pleasantly surprised. Hopefully this will usher in a new era of comedies the way The Cosby Show did 25 years ago.”