The best-laid plans of programmers…

On paper, it sounded like the perfect way to put a long, low-rated summer to an end: A Labor Day season debut for ABC’s “Monday Night Football” featuring one of the NFL’s most popular and powerful teams and its longtime division rival – the Dallas Cowboys and the New York Giants who, for an added cushion, play in the nation’s largest market.

Whether this is an omen of bad times awaiting the networks or just the last residue of this disastrous off-season, the ratings fell as flat as the Giants did in an ugly 35-0 rout. Although the game built from a 17.1 rating and 28 share to a solid 19.3/32 at 10 p.m., as the Cowboy’s score climbed, ABC’s plummeted. The game finished with a 17.1/30, the lowest season opener in more than a decade.

The other early birds caught a few worms in these final pre-season weeks, but several also went hungry.

Shouts at UPN

UPN was crowing about the overnights for its Sept. 6 premiere of “Deadly Games.” The show scored a 4.4/7 in the 30 metered markets, which UPN says equals the average lead-in and outperformed May’s sweeps performances from 8-9 p.m. by 75%. However, those numbers may suffer when the regular season starts on the major networks.

UPN faced “Monday Night Football” for the first time in metered markets and “Star Trek: Voyager” (6.5/10) and “Nowhere Man” (4.7/7) dipped by 25% and 33%, respectively, from the previous week’s debut.

Fox’s “The Crew” premiered with a healthy 8.0/15 on Aug. 31, building on its lead-in, a “Living Single” repeat (7.8/15). Both finished second for their half-hours. “New York Undercover,” also new, scored a 8.2/14, finishing second. Most significant is that, like many of Fox’s other late-blooming dramas, it is showing signs of a possible second-season surge. Its premiere was the highest share ever for the show and the best in that time period for Fox in more than two years.

“America’s Most Wanted” made a solid second-place season debut two days later (finishing behind “Walker, Texas Ranger”) with its 6.2/13. But the show went south Sept. 3. A special episode fell to an awful 4.4/10, losing 1.3 points from its NFL postgame lead-in.

‘Money’ can’t buy points

Fox also attempted to bring viewers back to the couch even before the regular series are lined up with a couple of firstruns for theatricals. Again, the results were mixed. “The Crush” (6.3/11) finished third or tied for third in three of four half-hours and finished second in women 18-49 and men 18-49 in two of four. That was much stronger than the Sept. 5 showing of “Mo’ Money,” which mustered only a 5.7/10. “Money” finished in a distant fourth in every half-hour and finished no higher than third in men or women 18-49.

Fox had better success with a new strategy: If a special scores well, run it again the next week. “Alien Autopsy: Fact or Fiction” managed a 7.1/11 in its second appearance Sept. 4. The first run scored an 8.1/14 on Aug. 28, finishing second behind CBS. The September numbers are especially impressive in light of the fact that ABC’s football rating from 9-10 p.m. was nine rating points higher than the previous week. Look for Fox to try variations on this rerun tactic during sweeps.

On Sept. 6 NBC ran all new programming, and while it may have lost viewers to the Cal Ripken show on ESPN, it’s still disappointing that it finished at 7.2/12 – tied with CBS sitcom and movie repeats. NBC’s “National Geographic Special: The New Chimpanzees” scored a 5.9/10, finishing a distant third from 8-9 p.m. “Dateline” jumped to a respectable 8.7/14 for second place, but “First Person With Maria Shriver” shriveled to 6.9/12 and back to third.

None of that compared with the humiliation of NBC’s airing of the “TV Academy Hall of Fame,” which apparently will be allowed to diminish in popularity without cancellation until its ratings equal zero. The Sept. 3 telecast earned an awful 2.7/6.

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