Fall TV's Early Winners and Losers: Megyn Stumbles, 'Sheldon' Impresses

Plenty of new series draw big numbers (welcome back, 'Will & Grace'), darker dramas struggle, Hannity beats Maddow, and the NFL remains steady as it plays defense amid the national anthem furor and a Donald Trump blitz.
Courtesy of Nathan Congleton/NBC; Robert Voets/CBS

Premiere week ratings for the Big Four network may have dropped 16 percent from 2016, but most broadcast networks got a surprise silver lining with the arrival of several unquestionably big new series.

"It’s normally difficult to make concrete conclusions after just one week," notes Sam Armando of media-buying firm SMGx, "but there are a number of [shows] standing out and that's not likely to change — even with time-shifted viewing.”

Put CBS’ Young Sheldon at the top of that list. TV’s best comedy launch in six years, the Big Bang Theory spinoff averaged 21.5 million live-plus-3 viewers and a 5.2 rating among adults 18-to-49 from its Sept. 25 preview sampling. “We did a very effective job of reaching the Big Bang audience,” says CBS Entertainment president Kelly Kahl, looking ahead to Sheldon’s official Nov. 2 premiere and confident enough to have already ordered a full season. "Now we reach beyond that audience. We're really pushing to get those people to watch it online."

Military drama SEAL Team also gave CBS a strong first outing, ABC’s The Good Doctor and NBC’s Will & Grace reboot fared especially well — a fact Kahl and other insiders credit to “feel good” programming (a la NBC’s This Is Us) resonating with viewers. That trend also could help explain the failure of ABC’s Ten Days in the Valley, a dark mystery starring Kyra Sedgwick, which limped on to the schedule. (Sedgwick prophesied her lack of viewers in an interview, calling out the network for not promoting it.)

Delayed viewing may not really help the smallest of premieres, but it will continue to help propel the especially strong crop of new and returning series to further highs — especially considering total primetime viewership for the week was down 10 percent from the previous year. This Is Us, for one, skyrocketed to a 5.7 rating among adults 18-49 with live-plus-3 returns. If it can hold on to even 75 percent of that showing throughout the season, it could very well supplant The Big Bang Theory as the Big Four's No. 1 series.

Premiere week’s most humbling moment wasn’t even in primetime. Megyn Kelly, taking a stab a “feel good” herself in Today’s third hour, saw her daytime foray plagued by on-air flubs, harsh reviews and a 21 percent ratings deficit behind competitor Kelly & Ryan. Former Fox News colleague Sean Hannity, on the other hand, bested MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow during their first week head-to-head at 9 p.m. — thanks in part to a booking spree of conservative "who's whos," including Rush Limbaugh, Paul Ryan and ousted time slot predecessor Bill O'Reilly.

But as President Donald Trump tweets, so goes the conversation. None of those stories were the biggest of the week now that the NFL again is playing defense. Football viewership is again down for many primetime matchups down, a fact the president blames on player protests during the national anthem — though NFL ratings, overall, are on par with 2016.

“The degradation of the ratings appears to have stopped,” says Marc Ganis of marketing firm Sportscorp, “but we’re not seeing them rebound to where they were two years ago. There is, and should be, a concern to get them back there."

A version of this story first appeared in the Oct. 4 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.