Overnights aren’t supposed to matter, as any broadcast executive will tell you these days because a larger and larger chunk of the TV audience time-shift their primetime viewing. And yet, we know that every morning next week the TV brass will be poring over the early numbers, knots in their stomach, as the broadcast networks unleash 16 new series from Monday to Friday (5 on Monday alone) during the nerve-wracking annual mad dash known as Premiere Week.

A few thoughts before I run down expectations network-by-network:

  • While everyone is focusing on series, it probably will be sports, not scripted fare, that will determine the ratings winner for Premiere Week and possibly the entire fourth quarter. “No one will break out,” a network insider tells me, projecting that the 4 networks will finish Premiere Week in a tight race, with .4 rating point in 18-49 separating No.1 from No. 4. With the race so close, one hour of football overrun on CBS, which has a doubleheader on Sunday, may be the deciding factor that would push the network to the top.
  • I found it refreshing that three new series starring mature actors — Dana Delany (54) in ABC’s Body of Proof, Jimmy Smits (55) in NBC’s Outlaw, and Tom Selleck (65) in CBS’ Blue Bloods – made the cut in May. But I also find it a bit cynical that all 3 were put on the lower-rated and less improtant Friday nights. It smacks of age segregation. By contrast, the all-important Sunday-through-Thursday adults 18-49 race is populated by new shows starring actors in their 20s, 30s and 40s. Personally, I am rooting for the veterans who have more experience, talent and charisma than some of the other new series’ stars combined. And I think the shows actually have a shot since the HUT levels on Fridays are not that much lower. These series have the potential to bring in viewers right now. Plus, Blue Bloods has been getting solid tracking and already came from behind to score a series order with very high testing in the pilot stage. Outlaw has significantly improved in the quality department from its mediocre pilot. And Body of Proof could get a potential crossover boost from Desperate Housewives where Delany co-starred for the past 3 seasons and may return for a guest stint. Of course, it’s still daunting that no successful scripted series has been launched on Fridays in a decade. But it’s worth noting that the star of the last series to break out there, CSI, was then 47-year-old William Petersen.  (Note: While Outlaw just premiered and Blue Bloods debuts next week, ABC has yet to announce a premiere date for Body of Proof as the network is sticking to its tradition of rerunning new series on Fridays in the first weeks of the season to give them extra sampling.)
  • I am surprised by the large number of new series — 11! — which the broadcast networks are launching at 8 PM and 10 PM, timeslots where no scripted series on the Big 4 has broken through in a big way in years. The three standout freshmen last season — Modern Family, Glee, and NCIS: LA — all launched at 9 PM, as did the breakout hit of the previous season, CBS’ The Mentalist. Meanwhile, the DVR viewing-heavy 10 PM hour last season did yield 2 modest new hits: CBS’ The Good Wife and NBC’s Parenthood. The smaller and younger-skewing CW has fared far better at 8 PM than its bigger counterparts with flagship drama Vampire Diaries.
  • I find it symbolic that HBO is unspooling its prohibition-era extravaganza Boardwalk Empire tonight, on the eve of the broadcast premiere week. Its Martin Scoresese-directed $18-million dollar pilot probably cost as much as the pilots of all 5 series set to premiere on the broadcast networks the following night. And best of all, HBO doesn’t have to care about its ratings. That should add a lot of envy and a little depression for broadcast execs given the anxiety they already feel heading into Premiere Week.

And now a brief network-by-network rundown:

The consensus is that NBC will do well in premiere week, something the network desperately needs after last season’s unmitigated disaster because of less development with Leno stripped at 10 PM. So NBC broke the bank to get top-notch creators, and most of its new fall series are tracking well. Leading the pack are thriller The Event, spinoff Law & Order: LA, and late awareness gainer The Chase, a personal favorite of top NBC Uni brass, including Jeff Zucker. NBC also has a strong promotional platform in Sunday Night Football, which came out the gate blazing hot, packing an audience of 25 million last week. (NBC’s promos also got a big play on its hot cable sibling USA where viewers watched great scripted series all summer.) Of course, the majority of football viewers are men, which help the more male-skewing new shows like The Event and Outsourced as opposed to the romantic spy thriller Undercovers, for example. The serialized Event, one of the most heavily marketed new series this fall, is expected to premiere big in the Monday 9 PM slot and beat the slower-pace more cinematic Lone Star on Fox. But long term, it’s unclear if The Event will follow the ratings trajectory of fellow serialized dramas Lost and 24 which kept steady for most of their runs, or mimic its time-slot predecessor Heroes, which fell off a cliff after a strong first season, or FlashForward, which faded very quickly last season after a strong launch. There’s good buzz on the post-pilot episodes of both The Event and Lone Star, so the race at 9 PM could be tight especially since it features stalwarts Dancing with the Stars and Two and Half Men. Also tracking well is NBC’s new sitcom Outsourced, controversy aside about a call center relocated to India. Despite is abysmal track record for scripted programming in recent years, the network has actually added a viable new workplace series to its Thursday night comedy block in each of the past two seasons with Parks & Recreation and then Community. Will Outsourced be No. 3? Overall, for NBC to call this fall a success, it has to show year-to-year gains well beyond Premiere Week and not only in the 10 PM hour where The Jay Leno Show faded quickly last fall.

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Fox made a risky move shifting breakout hit Glee from 9 PM to 8 PM on Tuesdays. But the network bigwigs hope the show’s status of appointment viewing would help it at least maintain the ratings levels from last season. Besides opening a night, Glee is given the toughest possible task on Fox these days — to successfully launch a live-action comedy. Actually, two of them. With the network not able to get a new live-action half-hour going in years, that is the biggest question mark at Fox this fall: would the draught end with Raising Hope and Running Wilde? Both are launching with expansive campaigns and mixed reviews so far. By shifting Glee, Fox became the only Big 4 network to launch all of its new series in the 9 PM hour, giving them as much protection as possible. Its biggest hits House and Glee are launching pads for entertainment president Kevin Reilly’s favorite Lone Star and the 2 comedies, respectively. (The CW did the same with its 2 new series Hellcats and Nikita.) Overall, Fox will get less help from sports this fall because baseball’s American League Championship, featuring those primetime darlings the Yankees, runs on Turner this year.

ABC seems to have shifted marketing resources late in the campaign from initial frontrunners No Ordinary Family and My Generation, favorites of former ABC Entertainment president Steve McPherson, to cop drama Detroit 1-8-7. The network  picked that show over the other two to open the New York TV Festival. New Wednesday comedy Better with You also is getting some good buzz. On the other hand, My Generation and No Ordinary Family have been plagued by somewhat confusing marketing, which, at least in part, might have cost the job of ABC’s recently sacked marketing co-head Mike Benson. The two new series, rumored to have had production difficulties tied to their ambitious premises, have also been given the tough task to self-start. They serve as 8 PM anchors on Tuesday and Thursday, respectively. The big question at ABC is when new chief Paul Lee will make his first scheduling move and possibly reshuffle the deck. But the good news for him is that no one will blame him if things fall apart for ABC this fall.

CBS is the big risk-taker this season, transplanting 4 series that were doing well in their time slots — The Big Bang Theory, Survivor, CSI: Miami, and CSI: NY. The good news is that veteran Survivor already launched successfully in its new Wednesday 8 PM slot, and the Big Bang rerun marathon performed very encouragingly on Thursday of this past week. The consensus is that all the transplanted shows will probably do well, but the question is how the new tenants in the vacated slots will fare. The new Chuck Lorre comedy Mike and Molly is not going to be able to sustain the ratings heights of Big Bang behind Two And A Half Men, but how down will it be? And how will that affect CBS’ flagship new drama Hawaii Five-0 filling CSI: Miami‘s Monday 10 PM slot where it will face another hot newcomer, NBC’s Chase, and ABC’s Dancing with the Stars-inflated incumbent, Castle. Facing the same issue is CBS’ new legal dramedy The Defenders, which succeeds CSI: NY on Wednesday and will face all-new competition from legal dramas ABC’s The Whole Truth and NBC’s Law & Order: LA. And the new William Shatner comedy $#*! My Dad Says, which launches behind Big Bang, may not be able to match the ratings levels of Survivor in the Thursday 8 PM hour, either.

For CW, Premiere Week will be all about weathering the storm as the bulk of the network’s original lineup, including new series Nikita and Hellcats, debuted over the past 2 weeks. Both Nikita and Hellcats did OK in their premieres but none showed the breakout potential of last year’s Vampire Diaries. More alarmingly for the CW, all of its returning series opened lower than last season, including flagship dramas Vampire Diaries and Gossip Girl, both down double digits.