Eye's big win tempered by anomalous sked

That grinding sound you may have heard last week was TV’s nonfiction juggernaut finally coming to a halt– or at least a serious slowdown.

After a year of get-rich quizzers, far-out reality skeins and an overhyped Olympics, viewers began the 2000-01 season last week ravenous for some old-fashioned comedies and dramas. And network TV delivered: Faves like “Everybody Loves Raymond,” “That ’70s Show” and “The West Wing” returned to record ratings, while a handful of new offerings (“CSI,” “Dark Angel,” “Ed”) had promising debuts.

The biggest winner of premiere week: CBS. When final Nielsen stats are released today, the Eye will finish on top in both total viewers and adults 18-49. It’s the network’s first in-season win in the key demo without sports help since Grammy week in 1994.

Eye execs may not want to throw away the Geritol just yet, however. While the net is clearly on the upswing in attracting more and younger viewers, the first-place finish in adults 18-49 is an anomaly given the disruptions of the first week, which included three first-round playoff games on both NBC and Fox and presidential and VP debates on Tuesday and Thursday.

CBS’ triumph also came during a week in which auds — particularly those in younger demos — generally shunned less-scripted fare such as ABC’s “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire,” a cheesy male beauty pageant on Fox and baseball playoffs.

One reason for the solid success of entertainment series during the first few nights of the new season: timing. With the Olympics pushing the start of the season to October, there was pent-up demand for old-fashioned dramas and comedies.

“People have been waiting a long, long time to see their favorite shows,” one network insider said. “These premieres and new shows were eventized, and viewers responded.”

Indeed, there were positive signs last week at every net except ABC, which launched only a pair of Friday comedies, while the season’s first two episodes of “Millionaire” were devalued in key demos. While some ratings erosion is to be expected in a show’s second season, what’s striking is how quickly the quizzer’s aura of invincibility has disappeared.

Consider, for example, that after easily winning 31 of 32 Tuesday and Wednesday hours in the key demo of adults 18-49 last season — and by an average margin of 11 shares — “Millionaire” came out of the box and fell to second on both nights (to Fox comedies and the Country Music Assn. Awards on CBS, respectively).

Industry prognosticators warn against reading too much into “Millionaire’s” decline or the poor perf of Fox’s “Sexiest Bachelor” competish. The consensus is that, for better or worse, webs will continue developing reality skeins.

“You’re never going to have 22 hours of (shows like) ‘The West Wing’ or ‘Everybody Loves Raymond,’ ” says one Web head. “Even if we could produce it, people wouldn’t watch all of it. You need a lot of diverse ideas and formats.”

Indeed, reality can still score on the right network and in the right timeslot. Despite tons of promotion, the premiere of the Eye’s remake of “The Fugitive” ranked second in adults 18-49 Friday at 8 — losing to a run-of-the-mill episode of Fox’s “Police Videos.”

Last week’s early numbers demonstrate just how important variety is to a network sked. An early report card:

CBS

The Eye bowed five shows last week — and all five won their timeslots in viewers and, according to prelim data, adults 25-54.

CBS is projected to finish the week with a 4.9 rating in adults 18-49 — up from last season’s 4.3 — good enough to top ABC (4.6), NBC (4.1) and Fox (4.0 or 4.1).

In homes, CBS should end up with a 9.9, ahead of ABC (8.9), NBC (7.4) and Fox (6.2).

While “The Fugitive” didn’t stun, it still helped revive the Eye’s Friday, traditionally one of the net’s worst nights. The success of “CSI” in its first outing was one of the week’s biggest stories; a solid Saturday showing by “The District” also bodes well for CBS.

A big one-hour “Everybody Loves Raymond” energized the Eye’s best Monday in more than five years. It was the kind of event lead-out that helped 8:30 rookie laffer “Yes, Dear” — one of the season’s most critically panned series — post surprisingly solid ratings.

Only weak link on the Eye’s strongest, youngest-skewing lineup is “Family Law,” which fell behind NBC’s “Third Watch” despite a huge lead-in advantage.

NBC

The Peacock appeared to reap immediate benefits from its 17 nights of Olympics coverage, as new hours “Ed” and “Deadline” premiered to strong ratings. On Wednesday, “The West Wing” soared: Soph drama is expected to rank as the week’s top show in viewers and adults 18-49.

Overall, NBC had a fairly strong week, given that the debates and baseball kept many of its biggest series — including “ER,” “Friends,” “Law & Order,” “Frasier” and “Providence” — from premiering until at least this week.

It was quite a different story, though, for Monday comedies “Daddio” and “Tucker,” which struggled in a slot that has been unkind to NBC laffers in recent years. Combo even fell well behind what “Suddenly Susan” and “Veronica’s Closet” averaged a year ago.

The biggest tests for NBC are still to come. This week, the Peacock will unveil its Thursday sked, with “Will & Grace” as 9 p.m. anchor. And over the next month, NBC will roll out a revamped Tuesday featuring “Frasier” and two shaky laffers: “The Michael Richards Show” and “DAG.”

ABC

Regis might have saved ABC, but as the monochromatic emcee is fond of saying, he’s only one man.

Alphabet will finish down about 6% from last season’s premiere-week 18-49 rating of 5.0. This has to be disappointing since the net aired four episodes of “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire” this time around, while last season featured ratings laggards such as “Snoops,” “Odd Man Out” and “Oh, Grow Up.”

Much of the ABC dropoff, though, can be attributed to a much weaker “Monday Night Football” score this season (6.6 vs. last year’s 9.5).

Alphabet’s Friday comedy block didn’t look too hot in its first week out, with new laffer “People Who Fear People” already looking vulnerable. On Sunday, “The Practice” started the season on a solid note, but still showed some ratings slippage vs. last year’s opener.

The “Millionaire” fade should be setting off some alarm bells at ABC. Last Wednesday’s season premiere actually averaged fewer adult 18-49 viewers than “Two Guys and a Girl” and “Norm” did a year ago. Other three nights of the quizzer easily won their slots in total viewers, but none dazzled demographically.

Tonight brings the premieres of high-profile rookie series “Gideon’s Crossing” and “Geena Davis” as well as the return of “Spin City” with new lead Charlie Sheen.

Fox

Fox bowed two nights last week, and both did OK. As a result, net will finish up about 10% over last season in adults 18-49.

Much-anticipated James Cameron drama “Dark Angel” delivered big-time with its two-hour preem Tuesday, which went up against a presidential debate on ABC and CBS and baseball on NBC. It combined with a very strong showing from laffers “That ’70s Show” and “Titus” in the 8 o’clock hour to give Fox its highest Tuesday ratings ever with series programming among adults 18-49, total viewers, adults 18-34, adults 25-54 and teens.

On Friday, the strong showing by “Police Videos” helped new drama “Freakylinks” eke out a timeslot win with adults 18-34. Still, the supernatural skein dropped off mightily from its lead-in and could be in for tougher-than-expected competish from the Eye’s “CSI.”

The WB

Plenty clicked with the Frog net’s opening week, as each of its first four nights improved on the slot’s performance the previous season in adults 18-34.

Perhaps most impressive was rookie “Gilmore Girls,” a mother-daughter drama that posted the WB’s best-ever ratings for its 8 p.m. Thursday hour. Not so hot were the numbers for “Felicity” in its new Wednesday slot, despite solid stats for the return of “Dawson’s Creek.”

National numbers for Sunday will be out today, but overnights were impressive for first-year comedies “Hype” and “Nikki.”

The Frog net, with gains on Monday through Thursday, is projected to finish ahead of UPN for the opening week.

UPN

As with the WB, the net’s opening nights have shown sizable gains vs. the previous year. Leading the way was a surprisingly strong start to the final season for “Star Trek Voyager,” with its best men 18-49 rating in three years.

“WWF Smackdown!” continues to score, while Monday nights are also looking good for the weblet. Still to come: The premiere of UPN’s reconstructed Friday action lineup.

So far, however, UPN is showing gains in viewers and adults 18-49 vs. last season.

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