TV on the rebound

Beleaguered broadcasters have spirits lifted this season

Premiere week wasn't a fluke.

Five weeks into the fall season, broadcasters have managed to maintain strong ratings for an eclectic collection of new shows that drew large debut audiences. Fox's "Glee," ABC's "Modern Family," the CW's "The Vampire Diaries" and CBS' "NCIS: Los Angeles" have continued to impress, and that's but a partial list of promising newcomers.

With these freshman success stories, one might think broadcasters would see boosted ratings. But three networks are down compared with last year -- partly because of the effect of DVRs, partly because of top-rated veteran shows losing traction and, in the case of NBC, partly because of the loss of dramas at 10 p.m. and no new breakout hits.

The report card for the fall season so far:

CBS

 
The pieces of its schedule have snapped into place with precision: Putting "NCIS: LA" after "NCIS" -- click. "The Big Bang Theory" with "Two and a Half Men" -- click. Pairing "The Mentalist" with "CSI" -- well, that's more of a clunk.

The network known for ratings stability is matching last fall's performance in the adult demographic while posting a slight gain in total viewers.

"The network that appears to be most successful this fall is CBS," said Bill Carroll, vp and director of programming at Katz Television. "They had a solid lineup going into the fall, and they've had success with their new shows for the most part."

But even as "The Good Wife" and "NCIS: LA" have solidified the Tuesday lineup, the most dramatic moves were from veteran shows. Monday's "Big Bang Theory" has overtaken "Two and a Half Men" as TV's highest-rated comedy, and "NCIS" unexpectedly became the most-watched drama during its seventh year. "NCIS," not "CSI," is arguably the network's premium crime drama brand.

The biggest challenge for CBS is bolstering Sunday night dramas after freshman "Three Rivers" and veteran "Cold Case" have underwhelmed. A trickier issue is Thursday flagship "CSI," which has weakened alarmingly.

"The next case for 'CSI' might be finding its missing audience, which has made 'The Mentalist' not pay off the way it should have," said John Rash, senior vp at ad agency Campbell Mithun.

Fox

The strongest network in the spring has long been weak in the fall, sometimes ranking fourth until January.

But look now: The Rupert Murdoch-owned net is up 10% in the adult demo, placing second in the ratings race long before Simon Cowell and company show up to save the day.

 
"They're doing better than anticipated, having become more competitive in the fourth quarter," Horizon Media's Brad Adgate said.

Not only has the net launched two scripted hits with "The Cleveland Show" and "Glee," but also they're two of the youngest-skewing new shows. Also, the move of "So You Think You Can Dance" to the fall might not have made the biggest ratings splash, but the show occasionally has bested ABC's "Dancing With the Stars" and provided "Glee" with a great lead-in. (Just wait until Fox pairs "Glee" with "American Idol.")

The network also has gained traction Thursdays by moving scripted dramas "Bones" and "Fringe" into the competitive fray -- though in the case of "Fringe," which has been getting beat up in the ratings, the move has come at a price.

The sophomore drama "Lie to Me" is squandering more of its "House" lead-in, and Fridays continue to be an evening of tax write-offs.

ABC

 
The gauge for a fall victory used to be launching one new hit. The Alphabet has launched three shows that have stabilized with impressive numbers, and none is a spinoff.

Two of the breakouts are comedies, a genre the network has been trying to crack for years.

Still, ABC has dropped in the adult demo nearly as much as NBC, partly because of such sagging veterans as "Dancing With the Stars" and "Desperate Housewives" and partly because of struggling newcomers including 10 p.m. dramas "Forgotten" and "Eastwick."

The Wednesday night comedy block has been put together in precisely the right order: the strongest, "Modern Family," at 9 p.m.; runner-up "Cougar Town" right after; and the weakest, "Hank," launching the night into the middling "The Middle."

"They made a very smart play on Wednesday night," said Jack MacKenzie, executive vp at Magid Associates. "When you launch that many comedies, they're not all going to work, but everything so far suggests it's going to pay off."

Also notable is "Private Practice," a one-time bubble show that's now one of ABC's top-rated dramas, beating CBS' "Mentalist" on Thursday nights.

NBC

 
With no breakouts and "The Jay Leno Show" trending downward, the Peacock has little to strut about.

"Trauma" and "Mercy" have been modest performers, the cancellation of "Southland" sullied the network's reputation among writers, aging procedurals like the "Law & Order" franchise have dipped, and "Leno" has not found its ratings bottom.

"As Jay Leno goes, so goes the network," Carroll said. "Leno has been struggling. The rest of the lineup, even the returning shows, have not reached their previous levels."

"The Biggest Loser" continues to impress, and "Sunday Night Football" is a ratings driver and a vehicle to promote other shows. But those are not enough.

" 'Leno' is working for NBC accountants but not for NBC-affiliate news directors," Rash said. "Right now, the network's success is dependent on football and reality TV -- and football ends in January."

That said, the new Thursday comedy "Community" feels like a growth vehicle if one turns a blind eye to its ratings during a tough time period, and once rivals go into repeats against "Leno," NBC's year-round strategy with the talk-show host could begin paying dividends.

The CW

 
"Vampire Diaries," "Vampire Diaries," "Vampire Diaries."

The network desperately needed a hit in its target demo, and "Diaries" is just the ticket, jump-starting a highly competitive Thursday slot.

The CW has been laser-focused on contemporary soaps since the success of "Gossip Girl," but it is this hybrid entry -- paranormal/fantasy drama -- that has become its breakout success. With that in mind, the network might reconsider shuttling genre series "Smallville" to Fridays this season, where the once-strong show has lost a significant portion of its ratings.

The CW also gains the most percentage-wise when DVR use is taken into consideration -- a point the network often makes and that ad buyers agree is significant.

"If you have to pick one network where you can't just look at linear ratings, it's them," Adgate said.
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