Cover Story: Broadcast Execs Can Breathe Again

Every broadcast network executive had the same nightmare heading into premiere week: The viewers finally aren't coming back. But everyone breathed a collective sigh of relief last week; while the early across-the-board numbers didn't necessarily lead to the popping of champagne corks, neither did they precipitate acute agita.

“Let's put it this way,” says Shari Anne Brill, director of strategic audience analysis at media buying firm Carat, “it was a good week for good shows.”

While overanalyzing premiere-week ratings is an annual exercise in folly, a few rookies like Cougar Town and NCIS: Los Angeles came out swinging, while some returning shows like Heroes and CSI took a bit of a beating.

Fox got everyone's hopes up early with a monster return for House. The two-hour premiere posted a big 6.5 rating in the 18-49 demographic for a 14% increase over last year's season opener.

CBS saw many of its returning shows come back big, especially The Big Bang Theory and NCIS; the latter helped launch NCIS: Los Angeles and The Good Wife on a memorable Tuesday night for CBS brass.

Money well spent

The major marketing dollars ABC threw at FlashForward and Cougar Town were well spent, with healthy tune-in for both shows as well as critically adored Modern Family. Both comedies improved their time slots year-to-year, with Modern Family out-delivering the 2008 premiere of Private Practice by 34% to become ABC's highest-rated episode of a sitcom in nearly two years. Of course, the real test for ABC's comedies will come this week, when Hank and The Middle bow at 8 and 8:30 p.m. Wednesday, and Modern Family loses its Dancing With the Stars lead-in.

And The CW may have some new blood with The Vampire Diaries, which held onto 100% of its debut audience among the network's key younger demographics and actually grew its 18-49 and total viewer numbers week-to-week (1.7 rating, 3.8 million viewers).

“I'd like to see how everybody does when they air in their regular time slot and at a typical program length,” Brill adds. “There's a lot of sampling [during premiere week], but by week two you start to see where the viewers really are.”

Indeed, NBC's Community lost 26% of its premiere audience and could not hold onto its Office lead-in, losing 2 million total viewers and an entire ratings point in the 18-49 demographic.

And several once-dominant returning series may be on the wane (Law & Order: SVU, CSI, CSI: Miami) or are on the critical list (Heroes).

While Heroes may need saving itself, the Thursday season premiere of CSI tumbled 44% year-to-year. It was trounced by ABC's Grey's Anatomy, which had a two-hour premiere that pulled in 16.8 million viewers and notched an eye-catching 6.6 rating in the demo. And ABC's Dancing With the Stars was down 24% from last fall's debut and 33% compared to the spring opener. With a 4.1 rating and 17.5 million viewers, it was the show's least-watched premiere yet.

Last year's break-out hit The Mentalist was off to a modest start in its new 10 p.m. Thursday time slot, where it faced the second half of a two-hour Grey's Anatomy season premiere, but CBS execs are looking for a rebound when Private Practice moves into its regular time period this week.

Meanwhile, The Jay Leno Show saw its ratings come back to Earth after a big opener on Sept. 14. A healthy lead-in on Tuesday from The Biggest Loser helped propel Leno to a 2.4. But by Thursday, when it faced Grey's Anatomy and The Mentalist, Leno was down to a 1.7 in the demo with fewer than 5 million viewers.

10 p.m. competition

“The competition at 10 o'clock is not necessarily going to be Jay Leno and the other drama on the other network,” observes Horizon Media's Brad Adgate. “A lot of people are time shifting at 10 o'clock, especially on Thursday night. The competition for The Mentalist on Thursday night is not Leno or Private Practice; it's CSI or Survivor or the comedies on NBC.”

And while the broadcast networks can feel pretty good about the results of premiere week in an ever-fragmenting media universe, the true test is yet to come. As Adgate puts it: “Premiere-week viewing generally experiences a 10% increase compared to the rest of the season.”