Fall stumbles out of the gate

Aud erosion plagues 'Raymond,' 'ER,' 'Friends'

The new fall TV season has opened not with a bang or a whimper — but rather the bewildered cry of network execs wondering where the hell have all the viewers gone.

First week of the 2003-04 opened with the Big Six collectively dropping from a 56% share of the viewing aud to 52%, and the news was even worse during the second week of the season as the nets lost six share points vs. last year.

Heavyweights such as “Everybody Loves Raymond,” “Friends” and “ER” — while still potent, timeslot-winning hits — suffered huge year-to-year viewer defections as auds continued flocking to cable hits such as “Nip/Tuck” and “Trading Spaces.”

Moreover, some skeins that seemed to be sure things (“Miss Match,” “Karen Sisco”) stumbled out of the gate, while others failed to live up to expectations (“The Lyon’s Den,” “Navy NCIS,” “Coupling.”)

And then there were the downright duds: “Threat Matrix,” “The Brotherhood of Poland, N.H.” and “Luis.”

Of course, you’ll never get webheads to ‘fess up to their pain.

Perhaps it’s simply a coping mechanism, but network execs seem physically incapable of admitting to any hint of disappointment over early-season ratings.

The spin comes fast (and sometimes furious ) this time of year, with heads of billion-dollar networks not afraid to personally calling up ink-stained wretches to personally vent their frustrations over how their Nielsen numbers are being interpreted.

And to be fair, the new season is not without its success stories.

CBS has launched one of its strongest classes of rookies in years, while ABC’s laffers are laughing loudest and NBC seems to have breathed some new life into vets such as “Frasier” and “The West Wing.”

It’s also worth cautioning that what happens during premiere week often stays in premiere week. Viewers grow more fickle every year, so skeins that seem hits today could very well be off the air by Christmas.

That said, here’s a snapshot of how the new season looks so far for five of the six nets. (Fox has taken itself out of the early season game due to postseason baseball coverage.)

CBS

The Eye is off to another strong start, with most of its frosh contenders at least getting sampled by auds.

Star of the class of 2003 is “Joan of Arcadia,” which wowed with its Friday night upset of NBC’s much-hyped “Miss Match.” “The Handler” is also doing well Fridays at 10 p.m., while “Two and a Half Men” is solid if not spectacular on Mondays.

In one of the biggest surprises of the season so far, “The King of Queens” triumphed wowed in its new Wednesday slot, beating back ABC’s “The Bachelor” in young adults.

On the downside, tentpoles “Raymond” and “CSI” — though still powerhouses — are showing some signs of age. And while “Cold Case” is a major improvement Sundays at 8 p.m., some observers expected more from the Jerry Bruckheimer-produced rookie.

“We don’t declare victory or defeat after one week, but we’re extremely pleased,” says CBS chairman-CEO Leslie Moonves. “We got sampled. That’s all you really want out of the first week.”

NBC

Holes in its schedule be damned, the Peacock makes winning the young-adults crown look easy.

Returning faves like “Friends” and “ER” may be down, but they’re still dominant. (One network exec, who declined to be identified, attributed the declines to the shows’ unusually huge bows last year.)

And all three versions of the “Law & Order” franchise not only win won their timeslots among adults 18-49, they win won those hours handily.

As a result, NBC scored its biggest margin of victory for a premiere week in four years.

Still, the net has a few timeslots to be concerned about, including Fridays, where “Boomtown” and “Miss Match” hit some snags (although said declined-to-be-identified exec points out that “Match” at least scored with young women).

ABC

Viewers haven’t forgotten their Alphabet after all.

Having stumbled the second half of last season, ABC was looking for ratings recovery as the fall got under way. And it got some encouraging signs.

The net’s comedy lineups on Tuesday and Friday nights got off to solid starts, as new shows “Hope & Faith” and “I’m With Her” showed real promise, alongside returning laffers “According to Jim,” “Less Than Perfect” and “George Lopez.”

“We’re cautiously optimistic,” ABC Entertainment prexy Susan Lyne says of the early returns. “We did what we hoped to do: opened shows and showed some promise. But it’s a long season, and we know that.”

On the flip side, the net continues to struggle with its hourlong entries. Newcomers “Threat Matrix” and “10-8” haven’t exhibited much life, and returning skeins “NYPD Blue” and “The Practice” continue to show their age. Much-hyped “Karen Sisco” also got off to a rough start — in a tough slot.

But overall, there’s still quite a bit of life in the net. The next step: Keeping that momentum going beyond the fall.

WB

It’s been a so-so start for the Frog, which as of press time hadn’t as of last week yet launched one of its big bellwether skeins of the season: Sunday’s “Tarzan.”

On the positive tip, the net’s Friday night comedy lineup is holding its own, with “Reba” successfully moving into its new 8 p.m. slot and “Grounded for Live” doing fine at 9. And “Smallville” seems to have brought a nice chunk of its aud to Wednesday nights.

But Tuesday promises to be a challenge for the WB, with “Gilmore Girls” fading a bit and “One Tree Hill” struggling to find an aud. On Fridays, much-hyped “All About the Andersons” isn’t doing a good job of holding on to its lead-in.

Still, “We’re doing everything we wanted to do, with the possible exception of Tuesday night,” says WB co-CEO Jordan Levin. “The emphasis this year is on comedies, and while they’re not going to get the same attention as our dramas, that’s where we’re going to judge our success.”

UPN

All hail the Fresh Prince, who has summoned his subjects to UPN’s Tuesday night laffer “All of Us.”

Loosely based on Will Smith and Jada Pinkett Smith’s lives, “All of Us” looks to become a solid comedy performer for the network, even outperforming established series like “One on One” and “Girlfriends.”

The netlet has had a tougher go on Wednesdays, where its sci-fi-oriented dramas aren’t attracting the kind of auds they once did. The recently rechristened “Star Trek: Enterprise” has stabilized in week three, but a new storyline has failed to improve on last year’s ratings.

And while crix seem to like newcomer “Jake 2.0,” auds have yet to pay it much attention.

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