And they're off! Which TV horses look strongest out of the gate and which might need to be put down.
As the U.S. teeters on the precipice of a double-dip recession, laughter truly might be the best medicine. Ashton Kutcher's Sept. 19 debut on CBS' "Two and a Half Men" generated a football-sized 29 million viewers, and the second week's 20.5 million still topped last season's average with Charlie Sheen. "How I Met Your Mother" debuted up double digits, and "2 Broke Girls," which benefited from a monster "Men" lead-in, pulled in an astounding 7.1 rating in the 18-to-49 demo.
On Fox, the Sept. 20 premiere of "New Girl" bested its "Glee" lead-in and gave the network its highest-rated fall sitcom debut since "The Bernie Mac Show" in November 2001. The third-season premiere of "Modern Family" on Sept. 21 delivered ABC's top-rated season debut in six years, and lead-in "The Middle" hit a series high. Even "Whitney," eviscerated by critics, improved on "Community's" 2010 premiere in the slot, though NBC's other Thursday comedies — including a Steve Carell-free "The Office" — were down.
The networks were up 16 percent in aggregate compared with the first Friday a year ago. Caveat alert: Last year, Fox was DOA on the night with a "Human Target" rerun and failed drama "The Good Guys." So gains this year for "Kitchen Nightmares" and "Fringe" offset slight declines elsewhere.
CBS continued to win with an all-original lineup of "A Gifted Man," "CSI: NY" and "Blue Bloods." Meanwhile, NBC's "Dateline" is consistently beating ABC's "20/20" at 10 p.m.; it was up 25 percent year-over-year for its Sept. 23 season opener. And beginning Oct. 21, ABC and NBC will program original content on the long-neglected night. "Extreme Makeover: Home Edition" will lead off for ABC; "Chuck" and "Grimm" will do the same for NBC.
For the first time, Fox won premiere week in the 18-to-49 demo, despite a nearly 30 percent drop for the Sept. 20 premiere of "Glee" and a somewhat soft 12.5 million viewers for "The X Factor" — especially in light of that show's stratospheric ad rates (as much as $400,000 for a 30-second spot). But with "New Girl" off to a rousing start and "X Factor" nonetheless juicing Wednesday and Thursday, Fox was up 26 percent compared with week one of 2010-11 — though "Terra Nova's" middling debut Sept. 26 is a disappointment.
Nearly every returning competition show bowed to lows: The Sept. 19 "Dancing With the Stars" on ABC notched its lowest-rated premiere, tumbling 24 percent compared with last fall's opener. NBC's "The Sing-Off" was down 30 percent-plus compared with its previous bow in December. CBS' "Survivor" notched its lowest-rated fall premiere. The Sept. 20 bow of NBC's "The Biggest Loser" was down 20 percent. And "X Factor" was beaten by "Modern Family," prompting "Family" co-creator Steve Levitan to tweet, "It's extremely gratifying that a scripted comedy finally beat an overhyped karaoke contest."
10 p.m. dramas
While CBS' "Hawaii Five-0" remains the time-slot leader on Monday, its Sept. 19 premiere was down 13 percent year-over-year and off 50 percent from its "2 Broke Girls" lead-in. NBC's hyped "The Playboy Club" was off 30 percent compared with the bow of the canceled "Chase." In fact, "Playboy" tied the 2008 drama "Crusoe" as NBC's lowest-rated fall premiere in the slot. Similarly, the Sept. 20 debut of ABC's "Body of Proof" was down 26 percent compared with its series premiere in March.
And the 10 p.m. Wednesday slot did "CSI" no favors as the relocated CBS drama's Sept. 21 premiere fell 9 percent year-over-year despite the debut of Ted Danson. CBS' "The Mentalist" was off 18 percent, and NBC's "Prime Suspect," starring Maria Bello, marked NBC's lowest-rated Thursday fall series debut ever. Two exceptions at ABC: "Castle" grew double digits, and "Revenge" got a lift from "Family" to more than double the premiere of last season's "The Whole Truth."
The No. 4 network ended the first week down 10 percent in the 18-to-49 demo compared with last year — before the shake-up of its entertainment division. Yes, NBC can blame the competition — Kutcher on "Men" and double doses of "Family," "The Big Bang Theory" and "How I Met Your Mother" — and a lot of its schedule was in development before Bob Greenblatt took over. But if the first ratings are an indication, NBC's turnaround is very much a work in progress.
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