ANALYSIS: Lessons Of Premiere Week

Broadcast networks’ premiere week wrapped last night. It was the most competitive start of the season in recent memory, with the vast majority of new and returning series – some 60 shows – launching over the past seven days. After the initial shock waves from the disastrous premiere ratings for Fox’s new drama Lone Star on Monday, there were no huge surprises – the shows stayed mostly on target, and no network tanked completely, with each having at least one bright spot to brag about. Of course, some did better than others (See the network-by-network analysis below.) But first, some overall thoughts on premiere week.

  • The changing of the guard on broadcast television seems completed, with last season’s hot rookies Glee and Modern Family becoming the new top dogs. The second-season premieres of Glee (5.6/16 in 18-49) and Modern Family (5.1/14) were the No.1 and No.3 scripted series last week, beating the season openers of such established veterans as House and Desperate Housewives. They were also both up significantly from their series debuts last year, a rare feat during a premiere week in which returning series were mostly down or flat with the exception of CBS’ Two and a Half Men and NBC’s The Office, which might have benefitted from the publicity surrounding star Steve Carell’s final season on the show. Still, most returning shows did return at their levels from the end of last season, and their numbers are expected to go up in the Live+7 reports as viewers may have been sampling new series while DVR-ing older ones for later viewing.
  • For a new show trying to break through the clutter, being different is great but it also has to be commercial. Last season, the two shows that stood out – musical dramedy Glee and documentary-style domestic comedy Modern Family – became hits because they were good shows and they were also crowd pleasers. This year, two shows that were different from the standard procedural formula on the drama side  – ABC’s My Generation and Lone Star – tanked in their premieres despite ambitious scope, mostly good execution and big marketing. They just didn’t have broad enough appeal to connect with larger audiences.
  • Tracking works, at least when in comes to projecting the winners of premiere week. The new shows that topped the awareness index and intent-to-view reports a week before premiere week all launched well: Hawaii Five-0, $#*! My Dad Says and Mike and Molly and NBC’s The Event and Outsourced. Also scoring high in the awareness surveys were 2 series that will premiere this week: Law & Order: Los Angeles and ABC’s No Ordinary Family.
  • TV stars are ageless if they are named Betty White or Tom Selleck. At 65, Selleck proved that he can still draw big audiences, with 13 million tuning in for the premiere of his new CBS cop drama Blue Bloods on Friday (another 5.6 million watched the repeat on Saturday.)
  • It’s been a soft start for big-name producers as neither J.J. Abrams’ Undercovers nor Jerry Bruckheimer’s Chase and especially The Whole Truth opened big. Next at bat is Dick Wolf with Law & Order: Los Angeles.
  • You can make a splash on Thursday if you’ve got the goods. CBS has proven it with Survivor and CSI and now The Big Bang Theory, while ABC did with Grey’s Anatomy. Have a show launch and grow outside of the glare of Thursday night and then, once ready, transplant it there. CBS followed the rule with Survivor, CSI, The Mentalist and Big Bang, ABC with Grey’s and Private Practice and Fox with Bones and Fringe. Launching a new show on Thursday night if it’s not in a hammock slot between two established series has proven almost impossible. Look at recent examples like CBS’ sci-fi drama Eleventh Hour and ABC’s FlashForward (It also helps if the shows are good.). Prospects already look dim for ABC’s new Thursday 8 PM drama My Generation. Meanwhile, the well-protected new comedies $#*! and Outsourced did well in their debuts but it is still early to tell if they will have a long life on the night.

Here is a network-by-network rundown:

The big winner of premiere week. It seems like everything went CBS’ way last week. The network avoided disasters as all of its shows opened well. With the exception of the low-trafficked Friday night, CBS had only one series – new or returning – launching below a 3 rating among adults 18-49, new dramedy The Defenders (2.9) at 10 PM on Wednesday. For comparison, most of the other networks’ series opened below 3. Heading into Sunday, CBS had already built a pretty insurmountable lead thanks to solid Monday and Tuesday and 3 consecutive nightly wins on Wednesday through Friday. Still, it got an overrun from a NFL double-header on Sunday to seal its weekly victory. Additionally, the network was able to bring a lot of eyeballs on Friday with CSI: NY (10 million viewers) and Blue Bloods (13 million). CBS’ bold scheduling moves have largely worked so far (CSI: Miami is yet to launch in its Sunday 10 PM slot but it is fully expected to improve on what Cold Case did in the hour.) All moved shows seem to be strengthening the slots they were dispatched to, most notably Big Bang on Thursday and Survivor on Wednesday. The big question is if the replacements will fare as well. Rookies Mike & Molly, Hawaii Five-0 and The Defenders all opened lower than their slot predecessors, we now have to see what ratings levels they will settle into.

NBC’s hyped new drama thriller The Event opened well on Monday with a 3.6 rating among adults 18-49, tying Thursday comedy Outsourced as the network’s highest-rated new series. On the flip side, NBC’s new legal drama Outlaw (1.1/4), which got decent sampling behind America’s Got Talent, crashed and burned when it moved to its permanent Friday 10 PM slot. And the network’s new series Undercovers (2.1/6) and Chase (2.3/6) opened soft. NBC’s high-profile Law & Order spinoff L&O: Los Angeles launches this week with some promise: its awareness has been high and its Wednesday 10 PM slot was warmed up nicely by Law & Order: SVU last week, which posted strong numbers in the hour. Also on the positive side, the network’s Thursday 8-9 PM comedies did not get crushed by CBS’ The Big Bang Theory and $#*!. But NBC’s veteran reality series The Biggest Loser and The Apprentice both took a hit, with The Apprentice barely registering with a 1.4/4 last week.

First the good news: Glee is on fire and was the top entertainment program last week. And Hell’s Kitchen has proven to be a solid utility player. The rest of Fox’s performance during premiere week ranged from mixed-bag to disappointing. Plenty has been written about Lone Star’s 1.3/3 debut. New comedy Raising Hope (3.1/8) was Fox’s best-performing and most promising new series but it had the best possible lead-in, Glee, and squandered a large chunk of it. The other new Fox comedy, Running Wilde (2.4/6) dropped even further. Also alarming is the fact that Fox’s flagship drama House took a pretty dramatic 37% year-to-year dip as did sophomore animated comedy The Cleveland Show.

The network boasts the top half-hour comedy on TV with Modern Family, which came back big, and the top reality series with Dancing with the Stars, which has one of its strongest casts this cycle. Also solid in its return was sophomore comedy The Middle, while new comedy Better with You showed some promise in its debut sandwiched between The Middle and Modern Family. And Brothers & Sisters was flat from last year’s season premiere. That’s pretty much where the good news ended for ABC. It saw two of its new shows, legal drama The Whole Truth (1.5/4) and documentary-style drama My Generation (1.6/5) flop in their debuts, and new cop drama Detroit 1-8-7 (2.3/7) didn’t do great either. That leaves superhero drama No Ordinary Family as ABC’s best hope at a strong new addition to its schedule. Of the returning series, Cougar Town‘s steep drop with Jennifer Aniston as a guest star in the season premiere should be a major concern.

After a slow start, which is understandable given the fact that the network had the lights turned off all summer so it takes a while for viewers to get back in the habit of watching it, the CW is slowly finding its groove. Most of its returning series actually went up against the Big 4’s premieres last week, and Smallville and Supernatural launched strong on Friday. Veteran One Tree Hill and rookie Hellcats already received orders for additional scripts. Nikita has not been the out-of-the-box success that Vampire Diaries was last year but has been solid enough to warrant a similar vote of confidence. Prospects are murkier for sophomore critical darling Life Unexpected, the lowest-rated series on the network so far this fall.

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