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Scattershot signs for the season

With presidential politics and baseball playoffs to contend with, the fall season debuted in an almost dysfunctional fashion last week. But with a nod to last summer, there are a few early survivors.

Fox's new seriesDark Angel, CBS'Everybody Loves Raymondand NBC's Emmy-winning dramaThe West Winggot off to fast starts.

As for last season's big story, ABC'sWho Wants to Be aMillionaire?,the network added a fourth night (Wednesday) this year and continued to draw large audiences. However,Millionaire,last week at least, didn't attract 18-49 viewers like it used to.

At the same time, early results at CBS suggest summer'sSurvivorindeed may have kicked off a youth movement. And speaking of youth, Fox'sThe Sexiest Bachelor in Americacame off with minor controversy and decent ratings.

But "nothing means anything at this point," says TN Media's top researcher, Steve Sternberg. "You have two debates, baseball playoffs and new programs scattered all over the schedule. The real test will be November. You have a situation that I don't remember too often before, where the networks are not going to have a handle on what's working until almost the end of the sweeps."

Regardless, NBC executives saw some clear positive signs last week.TheWest Wing's two-hour, second-season premiere was a big winner, attracting its best Nielsen numbers ever: 25 million viewers and a 9.4 rating/23 share.The West Wingtopped its previous series highs in adults 18-49 by 54% and total viewers by 48%.

"There was a confluence of events around the season premiere of the show," notes NBC West Coast President Scott Sassa. "The fact that it had a great cliff-hanger at the end of the season, the fact that the show won the Emmy Awards, not only a few but a lot of Emmy Awards. The fact that we had the Olympics, the fact that it's an election year, the fact that the debate fell before and after. So I just think it was a matter of timing."

Aaron Spelling's latest prime time soap,Titans, started NBC's Wednesday with 11.6 million viewers and a 4.8/13 in adults 18-49.

Compared with last year's season premiere ofDateline NBCin the time period,Titansraised the 18-49 average 37%.

On Monday night, NBC's new Dick Wolf seriesDeadlinedelivered a 5.3/12 in adults 18-49 and 14.3 million viewers. It averaged nearly the same numbers asLaw & Order: Special Victims Unit(also produced by Wolf) in the Monday 9 p.m. time period last year.

But it got no help from the sitcoms that preceded it. New sitcomTuckerand returning seriesDaddiostumbled badly. NBC-for now-blamed the bad showing on bad promotion, or just not enough of it. "It's like triage. With the Olympics, we only had so much promotion time, and we had to take our shots with only a couple of things," Sassa says. "You see more emphasis put into that night."

Fox's Tuesday-night lineup was aided by the presidential debate's occupying two of the three other major networks, soTitanic-director James Cameron's new dramaDark Angelshot off with a two-hour season premiere that attracted 17.4 million viewers and an 8.5/20 in adults 18-49, helping FOX to its best Tuesday ever.

New FOX Entertainment President Gail Berman said she is "cautiously" optimistic: "You can't beat that kind of first-night sampling. Hopefully, a good portion of that audience will return to the night."

CBS won the official first night of the season handily with its Monday-night comedy lineup, led by a special one-hour episode ofEverybody LovesRaymondthat attracted its largest audience ever (22 million viewers). Its new sitcomYes, Dearheld its own with 14.6 million viewers against NBC's weak-startingTucker.Of course, the network hinted that promos onSurvivorhelped bring CBS' median age down to 47.5 on Monday. That's down dramatically from the network's 1999-2000 Monday-night average of 53.

The early, more disturbing demographic trend might be at ABC, whereMillionairegot going on its second full season placing second on both Tuesday and Wednesday in adults 18-49. Regis Philbin's game show lost only once in that key demographic on those two nights all of last season. ButMillionairedid help ABC sitcomDrew Careyget off to its strongest start to a season ever, bringing in 13.6 million viewers Wednesday. The majority of ABC's new and returning series will get started this week.

UPN's final season ofStar Trek: Voyagerstarted with an impressive 7.1 million viewer audience, and at The WB,Buffy the Vampire Slayerscored its best-ever young-women numbers with a 4.9/14 in women 18-34.