Plenty of thanksgiving at broadcast networks

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Call them the Sunshine Boys, or the Golden Girls.

The Big Four networks are enjoying a slight bounce in viewership for the season-to-date, even at a time when the talk of the industry is about new-media platforms that didn't exist three years ago. Collective viewership of ABC, CBS, NBC and Fox has climbed 2%, or about 1 million viewers on average, compared with the same period last season. (Who knows how much higher it might be if streaming viewing and downloads from iTunes and other sources were factored in to the seasonlong average stats. Free access to full-length episodes via the Web has changed this columnist's TV-watching life, for the better.)

As the first third of the 2006-07 campaign wraps this month, ABC is sitting pretty with the three of the top five programs in adults 18-49 ("Grey's Anatomy," "Desperate Housewives" and "Lost"), a red-hot reality franchise in "Dancing With the Stars" and a charming freshman dramedy in "Ugly Betty."

CBS remains "the picture of stability," as noted by Magna Global analyst Heather DeMatteo in a primetime report issued last week, with surprising spunk from "Criminal Minds," new traction on Sunday nights with "Cold Case" and "Without a Trace" and "How I Met Your Mother" gathering some steam. Fox is in its now-traditional fourth-quarter slump with "House" as its lone entry among the adults 18-49 top 10 so far, though there's no ignoring the ICBM that is "American Idol" waiting in the wings, along with "24," for January.

Of the Big Four, NBC has the most to be thankful for this week. Improvements in its primetime schedule have the network more competitive. For sure, the peacock is going to miss the average 6.7 demographic rating delivered this fall by "Sunday Night Football" when the regular pigskin season wraps Dec. 31, but it has more progress to point to than football. Perhaps most important, the peacock seems to hits mojo back in a qualitative sense.

The Monday drama "Heroes" has been a big win for NBC, bucking the conventional wisdom in more than one sense to score with the most elusive of demos for broadcasters, adults 18-34 (in which "Heroes" ranks No. 4 season-to-date) and persons 12-34 (ranked No. 3). "Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip" has its champions and detractors, but even the latter category can't deny that most weeks it's an awfully well-written show. "Friday Night Lights" is making all the best-show-you're-not-watching lists. Tina Fey and Alec Baldwin are finding the funny on "30 Rock," in the eyes of many, while "The Office" and "My Name Is Earl" continue make for an hour of good, (mostly) clean fun each week.

Indeed, last week's elongated installment of "Earl" was an episode that Ernie Kovacs would have appreciated for its inventiveness. Who says comedy has to be bound by the laws of space and time?

In "Robbed a Stoner Blind," Earl and Randy wind up living in a hippie commune for a week when Earl decides to make restitution to a reformed pot smoker who they once relieved of his possessions. NBC and "Earl" producer 20th Century Fox TV didn't skimp on the music licensing fees -- the episode was well-punctuated by snippets of original recordings of Donovan's "Mellow Yellow," Tommy James' "Draggin' the Line," among others -- and they shelled out for foam-ation effects that were laugh-out-loud funny. Most significant, the episode demonstrated the kind of tightness among the ensemble (particularly stars Jason "Earl" Lee and Ethan "Randy" Suplee) that every comedy series wants to put up on the screen in its sophomore year.
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