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Broadcast Nets' Season Off to Slow Start

Four nights into the fall season (Sept. 22-25), the viewing patterns of the broadcast networks in prime time are pretty similar to last year's. And, like last year, the overall audience continues to shrink.

NBC has so far retained a firm grip on adults 18-49, and CBS still leads with viewers. ABC's
8 Simple Rules
gambit on Tuesday and My Wife and Kids
on Wednesday got the network off to a stronger-than-expected start, but the network still lagged way behind on Thursdays. Many doubt that 8 Simple Rules
can sustain its strong start as the show prepares to go from comedy to hiatus to tragedy and back to comedy again.

The WB and UPN opened strong Monday night but weakened on Tuesday. And Fox hasn't even shown up yet, waiting until after its coverage of the baseball post-season ends before unveiling most of its new offerings.

Thursday night continues to be a two-network race between CBS and NBC. NBC was the victor with CBS a strong second.

But the erosion Thursday was downright scary. Friends
was off about 8 share points in adults 18-49 and 27% in households (at 8-8:30 p.m. ET), according to Nielsen's fast affiliate ratings.

And Coupling, the sex-obsessed ensemble that NBC has Thursday-night–anchor hopes for, turned in a premiere performance that fell short of Good Morning, Miami's debut in the time slot last year (by roughly 10% in both viewers and adults 18-49). Roy Rothstein, Zenith Media's senior vice president for program analysis, says the jury is still out on Coupling. "It will take a few more weeks of ratings before we get a real sense of that show," he said. One positive sign: It won adults 18-34 against very tough competition.

CSI, the most watched show Thursday with 26.6 million viewers, was down 7% in the household rating from a year ago. That wasn't the worst of CBS's erosion worries: It was down in viewers for the first four nights, including double-digit dips on Monday and Tuesday. But, as CBS Television Chairman Leslie Moonves reminded reporters last week, "This is a marathon, not a sprint."

NBC's Whoopi fell 24% week-to-week in adults 18-49, from a 3.6 rating/11 share to a 2.9/9, although the show is performing 7% higher than last season's time-period average. Still, said Rothstein, "NBC has to be disappointed" with Whoopi and its lead-out, Happy Family. The good news Tuesday for NBC is that Law & Order: SVU is beating ABC's NYPD Blue and CBS's Judging Amy at 10 p.m.

On Wednesday, NBC edged out ABC in 18-49 with strong premieres for Ed, The West Wing and Law & Order. Law & Order, going into its 14th season, is likely to keep NBC on top all year.

Meanwhile, CBS had mixed opening-week results. It had a solid Monday night, with new sitcom Two and a Half Men delivering the best retention out of Everybody Loves Raymond of any show in Raymond's history. CSI: Miami, entering its second season, was down 25% in viewers vs. last year's series premiere but still dominated the time period.

CBS struggled on both Tuesday and Wednesday nights, with the premiere of Navy NCIS leaving something to be desired and the net's aging The Guardian and Judging Amy both down. On Wednesday night, the finale of Big Brother 4 was down from last year's finale of Big Brother 3, according to Nielsen's fast nationals, and David E. Kelley's The Brotherhood of Poland, NH, opened slow and dropped in its second half-hour.

The WB is holding its breath waiting for Tarzan to premiere on Sunday, Oct. 5 at 9 p.m.; it's pinning a lot of hope on the show. Meanwhile, Tuesday is a sore spot so far, with the season premiere of Gilmore Girls down 33% in persons 12-34 and 38% in adults 18-34 and the series premiere of One Tree Hill
down 73% in persons 12-34 and 79% in adults 18-34 against last year's premiere of Smallville.

But The WB's Monday nights have been strong, with 7th Heaven breaking records in its eighth season and Everwood holding up. Its Fridays look solid.

While UPN hasn't changed its fortune much since last year, its Monday-night comedies are working well. On Tuesdays, UPN still is having a hard time performing against last year's opening weeks of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, which finished its run last spring. All of Us stands out at 8:30 p.m., while Rock Me Baby and The Mullets aren't holding that show's audience. Wednesdays are tough for UPN. Star Trek: Enterprise is about on par compared with last year, while action hour Jake 2.0 is under performing last year's The Twilight Zone, which was canceled.