Fall bows are blase

Little to be happy about after premiere week

Wall Street in chaos. A historic presidential election. And in the background, some TV shows premiered.

After a long, sleepy summer, the broadcast networks returned to full primetime strength just in time to be overshadowed by real-world events that seemed like something out of a Hollywood script.

"There was so much news last week you kind of forgot it was premiere week," said Brad Adgate, vp research at Horizon Media.

Networks sure didn't forget. ABC (a preliminary 12.2 million viewers, 3.8/10 in the 18-49 demo) took its fourth consecutive premiere week, stopping NBC's recent post-Olympics winning streak. Yet neither ABC nor its major competitors felt entirely comfortable with its standing. All had key shows that were down compared with last year, and three out of five posted lower overall ratings.

With the possible exception of Fox's "Fringe" and CW's "90210," no new shows have clearly broken out. With DVR market penetration climbing from 20% last year to 28% last week, returning series were often coming back to year-over-year declines, with "down 10%" being the new flat.

Case in point: ABC pair "Grey's Anatomy" (18.5 million, 7.4/18) and "Desperate Housewives" (18.7 million, 7.1/16) were the highest-rated shows of the week, generating the biggest scripted-series numbers seen since the first quarter. Still, both dropped from their 2007 bows.

NBC (8.3 million, 3.3/9) placed second for the week, powered by the NFL's "Sunday Night Football" (17.3 million, 6.9/17) and the return of its cornerstone Monday sci-fi drama "Heroes" (10.1 million, 5.0/12). Yet the series tumbled a precarious 25%.

"There has to be concern about how 'Heroes' is coming back," said Bill Carroll, vp director of programming at Katz Television Group. "It's a critical show for NBC."

The network used "Heroes" to launch the Season 2 premiere of "Life" (6.9 million, 2.7/7) this week, then will use it to funnel viewers to "My Own Worst Enemy" in two weeks. Overall, NBC dropped the most during premiere week, about 15%.

CBS (11.3 million, 3.1/8) was powered by the return of its Monday comedy block and "CSI: Miami" (17.2 million, 5.2/13). At first, the network bucked the premiere week trend and actually improved many of its shows, even as new titles "Worst Week" (10.9 million, 3.8/8) and "Gary Unmarried" (6.8 million, 2.4/7) had disappointing debuts. CBS was off 9% for the week, but that's mostly because the network delayed the premiere of its top-rated "CSI: Crime Scene Investigation."

Fox (7.5 million, 3.0/8) had the ongoing strength of "House" (12.4 million, 5.1/14) and new thriller "Fringe" (9.4 million, 4.1/10), though both continued to drop last week. Still, the network was up 11% from premiere week last year.

Few would have guessed it, but last-place CW (averaging 2.9 million, 1.3/3) has enjoyed the sunniest headlines this fall, boosting its week by 18% compared with last year thanks to strengthening its time periods with "90210" (2.9 million, 1.5/4) and a resurgent "Gossip Girl" (3.3 million, 1.6/4).

Monday, "Gossip" went up against the premiere of NBC's "Chuck" (6.6 million, 2.6/7) and held its own, with the NBC dramedy falling to a series low.

Overall, broadcast was down only 3% in the adult demo compared with premiere week last year, though this round was skewed by the first presidential debate, which boosted the traditionally low-rated Friday.