Auds favor comfort food

Ratings healthier for returning shows than frosh or reality fare

It could have been a lot worse.

In the wake of the Sept. 11 terror attacks on the U.S., webheads had every reason to fear that shell-shocked viewers weren’t ready to tune into the networks’ new fall wares. But two weeks into the season, early ratings data suggest that auds are more than ready to return to their old couch-potato habits.

That’s the good news.

Less encouraging: Few of the Big Four’s frosh skeins appear poised to emerge as breakout hits. And the genre many execs had been depending on to lure viewers back from cable — reality TV — appears to be fading fast.

While it’s hard to draw too many solid conclusions about the 2001-02 season after just two weeks, most industry insiders have already identified one clear trend: Comfort food is in.

“There is great desire for reassurance and distraction from anxiety, and as ever, television can provide those things,” says David Kissinger, prexy of USA Television Production Group. “At a time like this, it’s very reassuring to participate in a group experience.”

Fox Entertainment prexy Gail Berman says auds are “comforted by the familiar. That’s why some of the popular (returning) shows are really popping.”

Indeed, among the Big Six, NBC and UPN — two networks that have had their share of ratings trouble recently — have used familiar franchises to build up the most early momentum this season.

The Peacock’s solid start to the year can be chalked up to boffo bows by some of the net’s most established players, like “Friends” and “Law & Order.”

Likewise, UPN has regained some of its groove by adding two shows that are instantly familiar: “Enterprise” (the latest incarnation in the “Star Trek” saga) and “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” (acquired from the WB).

“Returning shows came to play,” says NBC Entertainment prexy Jeff Zucker.

That’s also true at ABC and CBS, two nets that have gotten off to much slower — though hardly disastrous — starts this fall. The Eye’s “Everybody Loves Raymond,” “JAG” and “CSI” all premiered to socko Nielsen numbers, while ABC’s “The Practice” remains dominant on Sundays.

Fox and the WB have yet to roll out most of their big guns, but here’s an early report card on how the four other webs look coming out of the starting gate:

NBC

In a fall season where bench strength rules, the Peacock is crowded with strong players: “Friends,” “ER,” “The West Wing,” “Frasier” and “Law & Order.”

Top of that list: Tuesday night laffer “Scrubs,” which has shown early promise as the net’s next comedy hit. Results have been decent (though not overwhelming) for other new entries including “Inside Schwartz,” “Crossing Jordan,” “Law & Order: Criminal Intent” and “UC: Undercover.”

NBC’s strong returning performers have more than made up for the net’s obvious trouble spots, which include Saturday and Sunday nights. Then there’s NBC’s traditional inability to find an audience at 8 p.m. on Tuesdays. NBC insiders peg that slot as their top “problem hour.”

Newcomer “Emeril” and “Three Sisters” haven’t helped. Neither show brought any traction to the night this fall, but don’t expect those laffers to be pulled just yet. The Peacock has low expectations for those two shows, and NBC insiders claim neither skein’s ratings have dropped below the “bottom line” that would force the net to yank it off the air.

CBS

Oh, “Survivor: Africa,” wherefore art thou?

Eye execs are betting on the third installment of their reality juggernaut to both boost the net’s fortunes and end talk that the reality genre has lost its favor with viewers.

“Survivor: Africa” premieres Oct. 11at 8 p.m., opposite a resurgent “Friends.” In success, the show should help boost newcomer CIA thriller “The Agency” at 10 p.m. and once again make CBS a player on the night.

Until then, the Eye’s fortunes have mimicked those of just about everyone else so far this season: Returning faves like “Everybody Loves Raymond” (which premiered with its largest aud ever), “JAG” and “CSI” continue to pull boffo numbers, while new series have seen spotty returns.

“The Guardian,” for example, has shown promise, while “The Ellen Show,” “Danny” and “Citizen Baines” haven’t yet made much of an impression on viewers. Reality entry “The Amazing Race” has also settled in to decent numbers, although not as strong as CBS had hoped.

ABC

Cutting back on “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire” has had two immediate effects on the Alphabet’s primetime sked: Its overall ratings are down, but its audience profile is several years younger. With advertisers still focused on reaching adults 18-49, the net result is a positive for ABC.

The net’s new crop of series is turning out to be a mixed bag.

“Alias” turned in the best adults 18-49 rating of any new drama on the Big Four, while Friday-actioner “Thieves” did OK considering it’s surrounded by ratings duds.

The season’s biggest surprise may be new laffer “According to Jim,” which had jaws dropping all over Hollywood with its stellar premiere Oct. 3. If the numbers hold, skein could turn into the “Yes, Dear” of the 2001-02 season: A critically despised comedy that viewers love.

By contrast, neither critics nor viewers showed much affection for the Jason Alexander starrer “Bob Patterson,” which stumbled badly in its much-hyped premiere. ABC’s overall weak Tuesday performance also seems to be hurting the net’s new Steven Bochco drama, “Philly.”

More troubling for ABC is the performance of several returning shows. Even as other nets drew record ratings for their old hits, the Alphabet’s “Drew Carey,” “Dharma & Greg,” “Monday Night Football” and “The Mole” are all hurting.

“We’re in a rebuilding mode, (but) we have some very promising new shows,” admits ABC Entertainment Television. “We certainly will come out of this season with some new chips to play.”

UPN

Netlet’s been viewed as something of a joke in recent seasons, but the stellar numbers earned by “Enterprise” and “Buffy” have silenced the laughter.

Assuming both shows keep doing well, UPN will have shored up two key nights (Tuesdays and Wednesdays) and acquired a showy promotional base to pump up the fading “WWF Smackdown!” and its mediocre Friday movie franchise.

“Our schedule is now in the best position structurally it’s ever been in,” says UPN topper Dean Valentine.

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