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Turns Out Comedy Is Premiere Week’s 'X Factor'

Execs at ABC, CBS and NBC breathed a massive collective sigh of relief last week as Fox’s much-anticipated X Factor debuted to solid but hardly spectacular ratings.

The Simon Cowell-led singing competition, considered a shoo-in for highest-rated new fall show, debuted to a 4.4 and a 4.3 in the 18-49 demo in its first two nights, numbers that trailed two rookie sitcoms—CBS’ 2 Broke Girls and Fox’s New Girl.

While the numbers were far better than most of what Fox has posted in the fall recently, X Factor drew just half the viewers that American Idol earned last season without Cowell, meaning it is not (yet) the game-changing program Fox thought it could be—to the relief of the other networks. As one rival broadcast executive put it, “It’s good to see it’s mortal.” Another said, “Thank God it’s not another Death Star.”

While the number would be lauded for any other rookie, and many networks would be thrilled to have four new hours doing a rating over a 4.0, it fell admittedly short of expectations— and the guarantee to advertisers, according to sources—given the show’s massive hype.

“Expectations on the outside were very, very high, I think, to the point of being ridiculous,” says Mike Darnell, Fox president of alternative programming. “We’ve been promoting it for a long time and, of course, Simon used to do Idol, so I guess there’s lots of reasons, but the reality of the situation is, it’s a brand new television show and it launched well for a brand new television show.”

By and large it was a very good week for broadcast, and scripted comedy in particular, led by the Charlie Sheen-less Two and a Half Men with a 10.7 rating and a whopping 28.7 million viewers. 2 Broke Girls, no doubt propped up by Men’s massive return, did a 7.1 in the demo. New Girl, building on its Glee lead-in, was strong with a 4.8. And Modern Family, fresh off a repeat Emmy win for outstanding comedy, did a 6.1 to beat out XFactor in its premiere night.

“It’s exciting to see that television can get the 10.7 rating adults 18-49, a 7.1 rating for a new show,” said another network exec in a sentiment echoed by many in the industry last week. “These are big, big numbers across multiple networks which is fantastic.”

And while B&C wrote at this time last year about the clutter of premiere week rendering too many shows D.O.A., this time around, whether through smarter scheduling or simply better product, the carnage was less. While last fall saw several shows open to anemic ratings (R.I.P., Lone Star, TheWhole Truth, Undercovers, My Generation), last week’s few major disappointments included NBC’s The Playboy Club and Prime Suspect and ABC’s Charlie’s Angels.

Much of that has to do with the networks spreading their series debuts out over a few weeks this fall. Several launch priorities like Terra Nova and Last Man Standing were kept out of the premiere week crush, while stretching established hits Modern Family and The Big Bang Theory to lead into drama bets Revenge and Person of Interest met with positive results—and a sense of encouragement within the industry that people will still show up.

“The future of the state of broadcast television is a very positive thing,” said another broadcast exec. “I might still have a job in five years.”

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