NBC ratings keeping pace after Olympics

7:22 PM PST 03/07/2010 by James Hibberd, AP

Positive starts for Leno's return to 'Tonight,' two new series

NBC's first week after the Winter Olympics may not have won the gold, but at least the network didn't fall off the podium.

Coming off its coverage of the Vancouver Games, NBC rolled out two new series and relaunched Jay Leno as host of "The Tonight Show," and Peacock execs have reason to feel some cautious optimism.

Leno has slipped back into his "Tonight Show" role without a hitch. After debuting to a solid 1.6 adults 18-49 rating on Monday, Leno followed with another 1.6 on Tuesday with guest Sarah Palin, followed by a 1.5 on Wednesday and Thursday, all while beating David Letterman by a 50% margin.

Such numbers might not mean a resurgence for Leno, but nobody really expected a real bump; just retaking 11:35 p.m. with ratings matching last year after so much turmoil and caustic media coverage was itself a relief for NBC.

Among NBC's two new series, the results are less clear, though still positive in the short term. NBC went from losing the 10 p.m. hour nearly every night this season to tying or winning outright for first place on three out of four nights last week.

On Tuesday, the debut of "Parenthood" became the first series in its regular time period to beat CBS' "The Good Wife," plus it retained its "Biggest Loser" lead-in. The "Parenthood" rating (a 3.1) had left some unimpressed -- all that promotion and that's it?

But only the outcome matters. "Parenthood" won its time period with a number that leaves hope for this week.

On Wednesday, a two-hour "Law & Order: SVU" tied CBS' "CSI: NY" during the 10 p.m. hour, making it the first regular program in that slot to match an original "NY" in two years.

Then, NBC's special one-hour episode of "The Office" beat ABC's "Grey's Anatomy" for the first time, giving a fine lead-in to the time-period premiere of "The Marriage Ref" -- which won 10 p.m. against two strong rivals (ABC's "Private Practice" and CBS' "The Mentalist").

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Critics remain skeptical that "Ref" can sustain its numbers, especially once executive producer Jerry Seinfeld is no longer an on-camera presence. Still, for NBC not to drop the ball on three launches in one week can be considered a better-than-expected outcome.

The downside: Even with these victories, NBC returned to fourth place last week -- and this week is a tougher story. The Peacock aired four hours of "Law & Order"-franchise episodes and a big event "Office" that helped set it up for a win. But now, the network's schedule goes back to its latest version of normal.
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