Fall shows still draw in viewers

Auds for laffers remain at peak levels

HOLLYWOOD — If Americans’ viewing preferences last week are any indication, it’s OK to laugh again.

Audience levels for some of primetime’s most popular comedies remained at peak levels following their return to the lineup — assuaging the whispered worries of programmers who feared the events of Sept. 11 would forever change what we watch on TV.

Actually, top returning dramas also have done well.

In fact, if there’s one theme to emerge from the opening week of the new season, it’s that while viewers were willing to sample fresh offerings, they seemed to return like magnets to some of their longtime faves.

CBS comedies “King of Queens” and “Everybody Loves Raymond” premiered to largest-ever turnouts, NBC’s “Law & Order” drew the biggest premiere audience in its 12-year history and the Eye’s military drama “JAG” scored its second largest in six years. (Some have suggested patriotic ardor may have helped boost interest in the latter, although the skein’s cliffhanger finale from last season had it positioned for a powerful preem anyway.)

Still up in the air are the short-term and long-term fates of unscripted series such as CBS’ “Amazing Race” and Fox’s “Love Cruise.” Many industry insiders are openly questioning whether the genre may suddenly seem out of step with viewers, and both “Amazing” and “Cruise” failed to distinguish themselves in the ratings last week.

Perhaps the best acid test for unscripted fare comes Oct. 11, when CBS’ “Survivor” — by far the most popular in its field — begins its third edition.

Other ratings notes from the past week:

  • While the nets appear in no hurry to add newsmags to their skeds now that the season has begun, regularly skedded editions on all nets continue to perform strongly.

    CBS’ “60 Minutes” and “60 Minutes II” are doing especially well, drawing their largest audiences in nearly a year and winning their hours regularly.

    Now, insiders are wondering when this interest will wane, and when we’ll see the first newsmag story not related to the terrorist attacks.

  • Couch-potato sports fans, especially those in New York, were in no hurry to return to their games over the Sept. 15-16 weekend, as ratings were down across the board.

    One week after the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington prompted all major sporting events to be canceled, ratings for college football, baseball and NASCAR showed noticeable ratings declines upon their return. Pro football held up best, but even it was no match in New York, where the Twin Tower Prayer Service out-rated the city’s football teams, who were playing on the road.

    NBC’s coverage of a Winston Cup NASCAR race was down 20% from its recent averages, while ABC and CBS were down a collective 27% year-to-year with college football.

    And Fox’s Major League Baseball hit a season low. Again, the New York market was key, as the Yankees-Orioles contest (seen primarily in the Northeast) rated a lowly 1.8/4, while the other regional contests (4.9/14 for Seattle-Oakland; 4.3/10 for Cleveland-Minnesota; and 3.6/8 for Arizona-Los Angeles) each rated much higher.

  • The evening news broadcasts each gained audience in their first week back on the air (Sept. 17-21), with ABC, CBS and NBC combining for 31 million viewers — up from 26 million two weeks earlier.

    All-news cable nets are also showing significant ratings gains vs. the same time a year ago, but their combined 14.5 million primetime viewers on the day of the attacks and 11 million on the next day had slipped to about 2.2 million on average last week.

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