This Just In: Premiere Week Doesn’t Work

Every year they do it, and every year it’s carnage. After suffering through a summer of reruns and mostly bottom-of-the-barrel summer series, the broadcast networks designate one week in September to inundate viewers with premieres of new and returning series, exploding viewers’ DVRs and zapping their attention spans. If last week’s ratings results are any indication, viewers are over it.

Fox’s Lone Star: a disastrous 1.3 rating in the 18-49 demographic. ABC’s Maura Tierney legal drama The Whole Truth: an anemic 1.5. NBC’s expensive new JJ Abrams spy caper Undercovers: a meager 2.1.

Network executives admit that “premiere week” is dubious tradition. “In the end, we all know that it’s not wise to throw all of your content at the viewer in the same week,” says Jeff Gaspin, chairman of NBC Universal Television Entertainment. “Clearly, there are going to be successes and failures. The industry is built on these cycles of development and the upfront. It’s very hard to break the cycle. But I don’t know any industry that markets and releases all of its products all at the same time.”

Asked if, in hindsight, the network should have protected its sole new fall drama by scheduling it in a less competitive time slot, Peter Rice, chairman of entertainment at Fox Networks Group, said dryly: “In hindsight, when no one showed up to watch it and we were hoping they would, I would have to say, yes it was a mistake.”

NBC spent $10 million marketing The Event (and a similar amount to make the pilot). There was a time when big-budget meant big tunein. Today, NBC can crow about a 3.7 rating in the adult 18-49 demographic for The Event.

Downward trajectory
The downward trajectory has afflicted broadcast television across the board as consumers avail themselves of an increasing array of entertainment options. But while consumer habits have evolved, broadcast television has remained stubbornly status quo.

Of course, there is still some logic behind the recalcitrance; HUT (homes using televisions) levels are higher post-Labor Day; the buzz of “premiere week” spurs sampling. But buzz cuts both ways. Headlines alerting viewers to the abysmal debut of Lone Star, which was well-received by critics, are not likely to inspire an avalanche of week two sampling.

The networks have been unable to reverse the erosion of their share of the television audience or recapture pre-recession revenue levels. The lone exception may be CBS. Though it remained flat year-to-year in the 18-49 demo advertisers pay a premium to reach, it did grow its premiere week audience among total viewers and the 25-54 demo. No small feat in an era when fractured viewing patterns have made any growth a rarity.

Still networks can’t afford to throw away the considerable money spent on developing and marketing new shows. The shows that had the biggest premieres last week were returning series. ABC’s Modern Family, fresh from an Emmy win for outstanding comedy series, had its mostwatched episode ever. CBS' The Big Bang Theory moved to the lead-off slot on Thursday and managed to grow its already impressive tune-in year-to-year. Fox’s Glee returned with its second-highest rated episode ever in the demo. ABC’s Dancing With the Stars is also off to a strong start, thanks to another season of inspired casting featuring media magnets Bristol Palin and Mike “The Situation” Sorrentino.

And this may offer lessons for the future: Don’t launch new programming into the teeth of killer competition. You can’t afford it.