No breakthrough series as fall gets off to disappointing start


With such titles as "Vanished" and "Kidnapped," no wonder new hit shows have gone missing so far this season, particularly at Fox Broadcasting Co.

If Fox could be seen as a bellwether of viewer appetites for first-year series, the early indications are not good: The network is again flagging in the fourth quarter, with all five of the new series it rolled out in August fading fast. With postseason baseball beginning Monday, Fox already is making schedule changes this week, including the pre-emption of "Happy Hour," a possible sign that the faltering comedy will not be back after the World Series.

Beyond Fox, none of the eight rookie series that rolled out during premiere week burst out of the gate the way NBC's "My Name Is Earl" and ABC's "Desperate Housewives" did in recent years. Hopes are still high for 10 more to come, including high-profile launches this week for NBC's "Heroes" and ABC's "Ugly Betty."

"I don't see anybody's shows really breaking out (of) the new shows," NBC Universal chairman Bob Wright said Monday during an Advertising Week event at New York's Museum of Television & Radio in Manhattan.

Fox seems to be sticking to the script it has followed in recent years in which season premieres -- scheduled weeks ahead of other broadcasters to accommodate baseball on its air for all of October -- struggle despite the head start. Last year, at least one series, "Prison Break," avoided the downturn, while the previous season an unscripted-laden schedule, including "The Billionaire: Branson's Quest for the Best," experienced a similar meltdown.

But Preston Beckman, executive vp strategic program planning at Fox, notes that his network actually held up in the first week of the season compared with the same period last year, up 11% in the 18-49 demographic.

"To come out of this week with growth versus where we were a year ago, that means we're moving in the right direction heading into January, when we bring out heavy artillery," Beckman said, alluding to the 2007 launches of "American Idol" and "24."

"Happy Hour" is taking a seat Thursday, when Fox will double-pump " 'Til Death" from 8-9 p.m. In addition, the finale of "Celebrity Duets," scheduled for Friday, has been shortened to an hour, making room for a repeat of the pilot of the legal drama "Justice," which will be replaced by a repeat of "House" the following Wednesday at 9 p.m.

The pre-baseball changes underscore how difficult Fox is finding it to seed new series. Monday 9 p.m. entry "Vanished" is running 31% lower in 18-49 from what its lead-in, "Prison Break," was doing there last year. "Standoff" has plummeted from a promising 4.7/12 three weeks ago to a 3.2/8, while "Justice" has dropped a full ratings point as well.

Sources indicate that Fox isn't ready to give up on "Justice," which is produced by Jerry Bruckheimer, and likely will find it a new time slot in November.

"Standoff" is on the schedule for now, though Fox confirmed that production on the series was suspended this week in order to let the writers "catch up," according to a network spokesman.

The production hiatus also will allow Tim Minear, who has come aboard "Standoff" as a consulting producer, to get up to speed. Minear has been tapped to help with day-to-day operations on the show that will continue to be run by Craig Silverstein.

One week into the season, Fox's rivals haven't achieved a breakthrough yet, either. CBS rolled out all four of its new shows and got decidedly mixed results. While the dramas "Jericho" and "Smith" were competitive second-place finishers in tough time slots, the heavily marketed comedy "The Class" did no better than "The King of Queens" in its Monday time slot, while "Shark" tanked in its high-profile Thursday 10 p.m. slot, dropping 44% of its "CSI: Crime Scene Investigation" lead-in in 18-49.

"Shark" may have been hurt by the surprisingly decisive ratings victory "Grey's Anatomy" scored over "CSI" at 9 p.m., a gap Kelly Kahl, executive vp program planning and scheduling at CBS, expects to narrow. "That race will tighten up as the weeks go on," he said. "ABC went all in on the first hand, but there's a lot of poker left to be played."

The disappointment of "Shark" was somewhat mitigated by a collapse in the same time slot of ABC's "Six Degrees," which dropped 47% of its potent "Grey's" lead-in and a sharp drop-off in audience heading into the latter half-hour of the show. ABC got better first-week results from "Brothers & Sisters," which beat "Without a Trace" in the demo but still dropped 16% from the first half hour to the second.

"With all these 10 o'clock shows, it's going to be our job to hold that audience and build on it," ABC Entertainment executive vp Jeff Bader said, noting that new ABC drama "Men in Trees" managed to build slightly in its second week after a modest debut.

NBC may have suffered the biggest disappointment of the week with the flameout of the drama "Kidnapped," which managed half the audience of Wednesday 10 p.m. competitor "CSI: NY" and made it a strong possibility for NBC's first cancellation. "It's a good show that deserved a bigger audience," said Mitch Metcalf, executive vp program planning and scheduling. "That one surprised a lot of people."

Critically touted "Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip" also will be put to the test after a respectable bow that scored well in upscale demos but experienced audience erosion through the hour. The series' Hollywood focus has been criticized for being too insular to appeal to broad audiences.

Still, the next big thing could come as early as this week -- when new offerings include the ABC comedy "Help Me Help You" -- through next month, with more fall premieres, including NBC's "30 Rock."

In contrast to struggling new shows, plenty of returning fare came back strong. ABC won the week in the 18-49 demographic, propelled by robust returns for "Grey's" and "Housewives," while Fox's "House," CBS' "CSI: Miami" and even NBC's aging "ER" showed pep.

Still to be tested is the CW, which launched its first new series, "Runaway," on Monday. MyNetwork TV began stripping a pair of dramas, "Desire" and "Fashion House," that saw reductions of 13% and 11%, respectively, from their first to second week on the air among households.

Paul J. Gough in New York and Nellie Andreeva and Kimberly Nordyke contributed to this report.