Slow starts for 'Frasier,' 'West Wing' worry execs

HOLLYWOOD — The Peacock remains perched atop the primetime leaderboard this season, but its feathers have been ruffled for the first time in years.

Winner of six of the past seven primetime seasons in the key sales demo of adults 18-49, NBC is down only slightly this fall, but a pair of its veteran hits — “Frasier” and “The West Wing” — are off to surprisingly soft starts.

While it’s not unusual for shows to exhibit some ratings erosion over the years, the dropoff for these two Emmy-decorated skeins is cause for concern at NBC headquarters in Burbank. The shows serve as the respective 9 o’clock anchor for Tuesday and Wednesday, two nights that NBC won last season but now appear in jeopardy of going over to ABC.

And this comes at a time when none of NBC’s new fall entries is setting the world on fire and as the Peacock awaits word on whether megahit comedy “Friends” will return next season.

CBS, with several monster hits on its sked, is in the best position to take advantage of NBC’s soft underbelly, but the Eye would have to perform more consistently throughout the week to seriously challenge its rival.

Through the first two weeks of the season, NBC led CBS by 18% in adults 18-49 (5.2 to 4.4) and by 11% in adults 25-54 (5.9 to 5.3). In both demos, this represents a roughly 5% falloff for the leader and a 15% gain for the challenger.

Still, NBC is topping CBS on six of seven nights in 18-49, and neither ABC nor Fox appears ready to step up immediately.

Wednesday’s “West Wing,” which likely overshot itself in the ratings the past two years, has come back to earth this fall. Its two-week average rating of 6.1 in adults 18-49 is down a steep 25% from the same stretch a year ago, according to Nielsen.

The White House drama now is performing at roughly its first-year level, which was solid but unspectacular. It likely will continue to win its hour in adults 25-54 and total viewers, but it’s in danger of falling behind ABC’s “The Bachelor” in adults 18-49 at some point in the coming weeks.

The relatively slow start for “West Wing” has hurt lead-out “Law & Order,” which is off about 15% year-to-year.

The dropoff for “Frasier” is not as steep as “West Wing” but it’s perhaps more troubling, given that the comedy has long been the tentpole propping up an otherwise ordinary Tuesday lineup for NBC.

Excluding its premiere, “Frasier” is performing about 15% lower than it was a year ago (5.7 vs. 6.7 in adults 18-49).

The 10-year-old laffer’s decline is having a trickle-down effect on the comedies surrounding it. If viewers aren’t tuning in as often to NBC for “Frasier” at 9, they’re less likely to come early for “In-Laws” or stay for “Hidden Hills” and “Dateline.”

In addition to “Frasier” and “West Wing,” NBC is seeing its Thursday powerhouse “ER” decline another 10% or so this fall, although it remains the top-rated drama on TV in adults 18-49.

As NBC’s biggies fade, the net will look to take advantage of other opportunities on the sked.

Midseason drama “Mister Sterling” appears to be a good fit for NBC, and would seem a natural for Wednesday or Friday at 8, spelling (or perhaps replacing) the downtrending “Ed” and “Providence,” respectively.

And there’s no reason to think NBC couldn’t aggressively program Saturday and immediately move up to first on this night, thus boosting its weekly averages.

In other words, don’t shed any tears for the Peacock just yet.

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