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Packing It onTheir Freshman Year

More than halfway through the current season, broadcastnetwork television is proving it can still launch hit shows, albeit at today’s new, lowered definition of success.

If NBC’s Smash can hold a majority of its audience in the coming weeks (and that’s a big if), all five networks could end the season with at least one first-year show in their top five highestrated series—a very different story than this time last year.

And that’s good news for the networks whose other top shows, while still pulling in big ratings, are in many cases approaching double-digits in age.

Fox has managed to pop two new series into its top five with The X Factor and New Girl. While X Factor producers signaled they were not satisfied with the show’s first season when they fired half the cast two weeks ago, the 4.3 rating it averaged with adults 18- 49 on two nights is nothing to shrug at.

And with New Girl, Fox now has a strong half-hour player to build its long-desired live-action four-comedy block around, which the network will try March 6 with the addition of I Hate My Teenage Daughter and Breaking In to Tuesday nights. New Girl has also given Fox a new scripted heavyweight to supplement the fading Glee.

CBS, which last season popped Mike & Molly, added the breakout 2 Broke Girls to its already dominant Monday comedy block this season. The younger-skewing sitcom has brought down the median age of the night for CBS. On Feb. 6 Girls was the network’s highest-rated show, the first night the comedy block went head-tohead with NBC’s The Voice.

ABC’s surprise hit Once Upon a Time still holds the title of top drama launch of the season, even with Touch’s and Smash’s big leadins from American Idol and The Voice, respectively. And Once Upon a Time’s success is hugely important to ABC. Desperate Housewives is winding down its final season, and Grey’s Anatomy, though still driving ratings, is seeing several key cast members potentially departing after this season.

Even The CW, which has struggled to break out a hit on par with The Vampire Diaries, has seen some success with that series’ companion, The Secret Circle, which is rating well enough to round out the network’s top five.

The exception to the rookie rule (for now) is NBC, though Smash gives the network a good chance to break through. The musical drama premiered to a 3.8 rating in the 18-49 demo, a solid number, especially for a 10 p.m. show, but the question now is where it goes from there.

Up All Night, after launching to a 3.7 rating in September, has since fallen to a 2.4 (though that decline could be stemmed with its new time slot after The Office). If Smash posts the same or better than Up’s 65% retention, it could likely crack NBC’s top five this season. And with The Voice as its lead-in, Smash has NBC’s best launch pad.

“I think NBC has got to be guardedly optimistic at their success,” says Brad Adgate, senior VP of research at Horizon Media. “The first week is encouraging, but obviously there’s a lot more ahead of the show.”

The stakes are well-documented: With eight-year-old The Office still NBC’s top-rated scripted show, the network is long overdue for a new kid on its top-five block.

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