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A version of this story first appeared in the Oct. 11 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
Broadcast television executives can go ahead and exhale.
Following a season in which all but CBS shed viewers, fall’s premiere week delivered promising ratings. “I’ve never been so happy for a competitor than I was when I saw those Sleepy Hollow numbers,” says ABC Studios chief Patrick Moran of Fox’s early breakout, which was first out of the gate Sept. 16 with a 3.5 rating in the key 18-to-49 demo. “I woke up that morning and thought, ‘Oh, thank God there’s an appetite for broadcast.’ ”
Moran’s Agents of SHIELD similarly would deliver encouraging numbers for ABC, just as The Blacklist and The Crazy Ones did for NBC and CBS, respectively. That each of the big four networks had at least one positive story to point to in week one was as surprising as it was important. After all, the doom-and-gloom narrative heading into the 2013-14 season was one of the beleaguered broadcast networks teetering on the brink of irrelevancy as viewership continues to fracture and cable increasingly gains traction. (Such claims are not without merit, as evidenced by the Sept. 29 series finale of AMC’s Breaking Bad, which bested all but NBC’s Sunday Night Football with its record-shattering viewership of 10.3 million.)
“What we saw was each network demonstrating the ability to successfully launch a show,” says 20th Century Fox TV chairman Dana Walden. That’s not to say the week was devoid of underwhelming launches (see NBC’s The Michael J. Fox Show) or flat-out busts (ABC’s lottery drama Lucky 7) as more than 15 new series attempted to cut through the clutter. In fact, only ABC and NBC posted year-over-year demo upticks, with defending champion CBS arguably off to the worst start.
Although it’s too early to declare definitive hits and misses, here’s a look at how the Big Four started.
If this past spring was any indication, it would be foolish to uncork the champagne this early. And yet, it’s easy to see why chairman Bob Greenblatt might be tempted to celebrate as Sunday Night Football continues to dominate and The Voice roared back with a 5.1 demo rating, lifting Blacklist and returner Chicago Fire to a 3.8 rating and a 2.7 rating, respectively. The network notched its second straight premiere-week victory, averaging a 3.1 rating in primetime for its best kickoff showing in five years and the widest victory margin for any net since 1997.
“NBC has struggled for several years in the 10 p.m. time period, so to win that hour Monday through Wednesday — in some cases in both 18-to-49 and total viewers — is very encouraging for the future,” says Greenblatt, who emphasizes that “while there’s a lot of focus on winning, for us it’s all about growth.”
For now, NBC’s trouble spot remains Thursdays, where Parks and Recreation was off to a dismal start with only 3.3 million viewers and The Michael J. Fox Show nabbed only 7.5 million viewers, less than half of Crazy Ones‘ haul. Although Fox “didn’t have a lead-in,” as NBC head scheduler Jeff Bader notes, Greenblatt had hoped the show would prove more of a self-starter — especially because he has committed to airing 22 episodes.
Heading into the season with the biggest buzz (and marketing spend to match), ABC’s pricey SHIELD delivered on the expectations that accompanied the network’s first Marvel partnership. The series’ premiere scored a 4.7 demo rating, making it the highest-rated broadcast network drama launch in nearly four years. (It rose another 38 percent with DVR playback.)
Hopes of the series’ opening a new night proved less founded. While lead-out The Goldbergs (3.1 rating) and Trophy Wife (2.3 adults) gave the 9 p.m. hour some of its best returns in years, retention dipped through the night before completely running out of gas with Lucky 7. A 1.3 demo rating makes the latter the season’s poorest launch and easily first in line for the guillotine. Still, the network improved its showing 5 percent overall despite vets Modern Family, Grey’s Anatomy, Revenge and Once Upon a Time all returning significantly lower — a troubling trend.
Nina Tassler‘s comedy department has reason to be pleased with The Big Bang Theory opening to a monstrous 19 million viewers — and 20.4 million during its second half-hour, the most watched ever. It was enough to help bring an impressive 15.5 million viewers (and a 3.9 demo rating) to Robin Williams‘ Crazy Ones, making the 20th TV-produced half-hour the most watched new entry so far.
But it hardly was all good news. CBS’ Monday comedies (including the new Chuck Lorre entry Mom) are struggling, and its big drama play, Hostages, drew a soft 1.8 against NBC’s Voice-boosted Blacklist. Hostages added 50 percent of its audience with three-day playback, but week two saw the Toni Collette serialized show slip to a 1.5 rating and 6 million viewers, making it the night’s least watched show on the Big Four. Still worse, coupled with the fatigued comedy block, CBS ranked as Monday’s least watched network.
Coming off a season in which the network dropped 22 percent care of flops including Mob Doctor, Sleepy Hollow gave Fox its top drama launch in six years and retained 85 percent of its audience in week two. “We did a pretty massive marketing campaign and had seen the intent was growing,” says COO Joe Earley, “but it’s still hard to believe in anything until the numbers come in.”
Still, Fox is down 15 percent year-over-year thanks to returners New Girl, Glee, Family Guy and The X Factor failing to match their fall 2012 debuts. And the famously edgy network wasn’t able to translate controversy into ratings with Dads (2.2), which, launching Sept. 17 with critical favorite Brooklyn Nine-Nine (2.6), has not lifted Fox out of niche comedy territory.
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