Everyone's down, but it's not all bad

CBS  Median age: 53*     11.2 million   3.1 rating
How does that compare with last year? Pretty darn good. Down only 6%, which is less than the industry standard in year-over-year declines. Although ABC won the first week of the season, CBS has dominated since.

Killer show: The network's Monday night comedy lineup continues to prove that a traditional sitcom block can still thrive on television, as can Thursday's top-ranked procedural "CSI."

Soft spot: New show "The Ex List" is underperforming its CBS neighbors on Friday night. And TV reporters circle like vultures over "Worst Week" every Tuesday morning when the ratings come in.

Stealth strength: "NCIS." Like "Bones" on Fox, this is an oft-overlooked procedural that's performing very well. It also deserves credit for helping launch "The Mentalist," a solid new hit.

Analysis: CBS execs and the WGA strike are like Barack Obama supporters and the economic collapse, never missing a chance to point out how they responded effectively to a crisis compared to their erratic competitors. CBS deserves credit for coming back quickly post-strike, but even the network's executives are a bit surprised how well they're doing this fall.

Burning questions: America may be ready for a black president, but dramas with black leads have struggled to draw large audiences. The jury's out on whether "CSI" bringing on Laurence Fishburne to replace William Petersen will bring a change people can believe in.

To paraphrase Simon Baker on "The Mentalist," if this network were an animal, what would it be? An elephant. Strong and steady, but with a lot of wrinkles.

#2  ABC Median age: 51*     10.1 million  3.1 rating
How does that compare with last year? Down 16% in the demo because of the erosion of several returning scripted dramas.

Killer show: "Grey's Anatomy" dropped since returning to air, yet the soap still beat "CSI" and ruled Thursday night last week.

Soft spot: Wednesdays have turned into a surreal WGA strike flashback nightmare as sophomores "Pushing Daisies," "Private Practice" and "Dirty Sexy Money" sink in the Nielsens. Plus, Tuesday at 8 p.m. needs a new occupant with "Opportunity Knocks" off the schedule.

Stealth strength: Airing Sundays at 10 p.m., "Brothers & Sisters" quietly defends its period against broadcast competitors and a trio of trendy cable series ("Mad Men," "Californication" and "Entourage").

Analysis: ABC brought back several of its marginally rated strike-struck shows. Therefore, it only had two holes to fill. So you would think the network could have found something better than weak-at-inception "Opportunity Knocks" for one of them. The problem now is that just about everything on ABC's schedule has dropped in the ratings, and some shows are still dropping. Luckily, the network has drafted myriad midseason series that are waiting to hit the beach.

Burning questions: What will ABC do with Wednesdays when the entire night is misfiring? And will any of the new series catch fire?

If this network were an animal, what would it be? A giraffe. Standing tall but on shaky legs.

NBC   Median age:  46*   7.6 million   2.0 rating
How does that compare with last year? Down 15%, which is dire for NBC because it seems to happen every year.

Killer show: Practically the oldest entertainment program on its schedule — "Saturday Night Live." With a historic election fascinating viewers, the sketch series is blowing up its late-night ratings. The Thursday night primetime edition is doing great, too; its premiere ranked as NBC's highest-rated show for the week.

Soft spot: Mondays used to be the network's strongest night led by "Heroes." Now, NBC is in third place and trying to figure out how to keep its top-rated show from sinking. And once "Sunday Night Football" departs, the network will have a whole new night to program.

Stealth strength: "Biggest Loser" is a reliable hole-plugging workhorse. Also, the final season of "ER" has been winning its time period thanks to weak-performing freshmen competitors.

Analysis: With "My Own Worst Enemy," "Knight Rider" and "Crusoe," NBC rolled out a brand of escapist action-dramas this fall. Unfortunately, they're a little cheesy — tough-to-buy plots, sexy girls, lots of green screen and product placement cars (though no Cameros in "Crusoe."). The idea of drilling down on action-adventure and escapist entertainment might still work, but the execution of NBC shows has to improve.

Burning questions: Will the new titles survive the long cold winter and can "Heroes" return to its blockbuster glory? And if not, will somebody new be presenting shows to advertisers next May?

If this network were an animal, what would it be? Hmm, flashy shows with pretty girls and new cars? How can that not be a peacock?

FOX  Median age: 45*    7.2 million   2.7 rating
How does that compare with last year? Last year, Fox touted fourth-quarter gains, seeming to climb out of its usual fall hole. But this year the network is down 13%.

Killer show: "House" continues to rank as Fox's biggest hit, despite weakening this year.

Soft spot: After "Do Not Disturb" suffocated in the Wednesday 9 p.m. slot, Fox double-downed on similarly low-rated " 'Til Death." This formerly intimidating time period is weak this fall, and there's room here for a new drama to rule the mob.

Stealth strength: "Bones." Fox advertises the heck out of "Terminator," "Fringe" and "Prison Break," yet its CBS-like crime show is doing better than all of them.

Secret weakness: Fox is famous for strong reality shows, but "Are You Smarter Than a 5th Grader?" "Don't Forget the Lyrics" and "Kitchen Nightmares" are limping along. Combined with a steep drop-off from "The Moment of Truth," the division needs something fresh: "Hole in the Wall" wasn't it.

Analysis: The network seemingly put all its eggs into one basket with "Fringe." Thankfully, that basket didn't bust.

Burning questions: Can "Fringe" maintain its hit status and will the network's full-season pickup of "Terminator" pay off? Plus, will the return of "24" with a two-hour movie break the WGA strike curse?

If this network were an animal, what would it be? A grizzly — hibernates during winter, then awakes to maul competitors.

CW   Median age:  33*    2.4 million   1.1 rating
How does that compare with last year? Down 8%.

Killer show: "Gossip Girl." Sure, "America's Next Top Model" is higher rated. But Tyra Banks' audience is getting less fierce with every cycle while the "Gossip" army has demonstrated growth.

Soft spot: Friday-Sunday. The network gave Sundays to MRC, and CW surrendered its competitive "Friday Night SmackDown!" to MyNetwork. It's one thing to have a pothole in the road of your schedule, another to have a collapsed bridge.

Analysis: The network has maxed out on teen soaps (clone "Gossip Girl") and, coming soon, fashion-reality shows (clone "Top Model"). Now it's trying to duplicate "Smallville" success with the Robin-from-Batman spinoff "The Graysons." It would be nifty to see the CW find something that isn't a clone yet still targets its demo.

Burning questions: There's only one. With "Gossip Girl," the network proved it can grow a show. But can it grow a network?

If this network were an animal, what would it be? A gazelle. The CW is packed with waif-model starlets, lithe and graceful. But in any given time period, the network is eaten by bigger predators.

MYNETWORKTV   Median age:  43*   1.6 million   0.5 rating
How does that compare with last year? Up 67%. Hamlet said he could be bound in a nutshell and count himself a king of infinite space. MyNetwork is at the bottom of a deep well and is counting itself a king of infinite growth.

Killer show: The acquisition of "Friday Night SmackDown!" has allowed the network to beat the CW on Friday nights.

Analysis: MyNet's "anything for ratings" strategy is fine. The network doesn't know what it is yet. But as long as they're managing to grow in this tough environment, that's OK.

Burning questions: Will MyNet find a show that gives it a seat at the grown-ups table?

If this network were an animal, what would it be? A hyena. MyNet thrives by scavenging content other networks leave behind, from WWE to reality shows to "Access Hollywood"-produced celebrity specials. (partialdiff)