HOLLYWOOD — Cutting-edge and trendy fare may make it on critics lists and bring home the Emmys, but when it comes to opening a show to the largest possible audience, it pays to be something else — familiar.
One of the things evident in the early-season ratings for new programs this fall is that a recognizable title or brand can serve as a very effective marketing tool in launching a show.
Whether viewers stick around for subsequent weeks may prove to be another matter, but — much like opening-weekend box office is crucial to a movie’s success — getting couch potatoes to flip to your program from the start is key.
In the early going this season, viewers have gravitated toward titles they’ve seen before (remakes of “Twilight Zone” and “Family Affair”), a spinoff (“CSI: Miami”) of television’s most-watched drama, and a variety show starring one of the Kings of Comedy (“Cedric the Entertainer Presents”).
All four of these programs performed better than expected, with “CSI: Miami,” not surprisingly, the biggest. It bowed before an audience of more than 23 million viewers, according to Nielsen, making it the most-watched drama premiere since “ER” in the fall of 1994.
“Family Affair” premiered to 4.6 million, a better-than-expected turnout kicking off a tough night (Thursday), while “Twilight Zone” delivered about the same number of viewers on its first Wednesday try, retaining 90% of its lead-in from “Enterprise.”
And Wednesday’s “Cedric” impressively built on its “Bernie Mac” lead-in, drawing 10.4 million in its first time out.
“Family,” “Cedric” and “Twilight” all bowed earlier than most of the other new shows and accomplished their goal of getting good early sampling.
Another key to attracting an audience right off the bat is the right title.
When ABC returned to its family-comedy roots this fall and brought back John Ritter for a new comedy called “8 Simple Rules for Dating My Teenage Daughter,” viewers knew what they could expect. And they weren’t disappointed.
The show bowed to boffo ratings, winning its timeslot with a stellar 6.1 rating in adults 18-49, and retained more than 80% of that aud in Week 2, again topping its competish. It looks like one of the early season’s breakout hits.
Shows with more uninspired or ambiguous titles, such as the WB’s “What I Like About You,” Fox’s “Firefly” and ABC’s “MDs,” failed to call much attention to themselves and suffered in the ratings.
Same could hold true for ABC’s “Less Than Perfect,” NBC’s “American Dreams” and CBS’ “Hack” (it’s about a vigilante cabbie) and “Bram and Alice” (they’re father and daughter). At least the Eye changed the title of its crime series “Robbery Homicide Division.” Up until June, it was known by the incomprehensible title “RHD/LA.”
Even on the network of “JAG” and “CSI,” that may have been a bit much.
For an early look at ratings each weekday, visit Variety.com/tvratings.