Critics praise new series, but viewers deliver different verdicts

Audiences stick with favorites despite new shows' acclaim

It’s a five-word phrase every webhead loathes: low-rated but critically acclaimed.

Sure, accolades and awards are nice, but advertisers don’t shell out big bucks for kudos, and all the positive reviews in the world won’t save the job of a network entertainment president who fails to deliver solid ratings.

No wonder, then, that most network suits aren’t feeling particularly giddy about how the 2006-07 season has turned out so far.

This fall’s frosh players drew some of the best overall reviews of any new crop of skeins in recent memory. Viewers, though, have delivered a different verdict.

“There are a lot of critically acclaimed shows this season that are doing mediocre ratings,” ABC exec veepee Jeff Bader admits.

Indeed, crix kvelled over the likes of “Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip,” “The Nine,” “30 Rock,” “Kidnapped,” “The Class” and “Friday Night Lights.” Even shows you wouldn’t think of as potential critical darlings — such as crime dramas “Justice” and “Smith” — had solid pockets of support.

And yet, none of the above shows has emerged as anything close to a hit. Some, like “Kidnapped,” “Justice,” “The Nine” and “Smith” have already bitten the dust.

Execs argue this fall’s ratio of hits-to-misses shouldn’t come as a shock.

“It’s a business of failure,” NBC Entertainment prexy Kevin Reilly says. “Historically, most things don’t work. Just because they’re good doesn’t help the odds, particularly at a time when so many things are competing for people’s attention.”

That’s not to say the fall results haven’t left execs scratching their heads.

“What’s surprising is that the shows getting the most hype going into the fall ultimately aren’t the ones that worked,” he says.

For example, while “Studio 60” snagged tons of media attention, it was NBC’s Monday frosh “Heroes” that has emerged as the season’s biggest hit.

It’s averaging a 6.4 rating in adults 18-49, making it the highest-rated new program of the past two seasons — and the top new Peacock drama in years. It’s also the No. 1 scripted series of the season in men 18-34.

Likewise, ABC gave “Six Degrees” and “The Nine” two of the net’s best timeslots. But it was “Ugly Betty,” originally destined for the Friday night graveyard before being switched to Thursdays, that has emerged as one of the season’s biggest success stories.

Overall, viewers’ plates were full coming into the season, and — with a couple of exceptions — they only dabbled in morsels when it came to new shows.

In most cases, auds stuck with their faves, especially at 10 o’clock, where no new drama has had much success up against the established likes of “CSI: Miami,” “Law & Order: Special Victims Unit,” “CSI: NY” and “ER.”

Looking just at entertainment series, ABC is easily having the best year of any network, with its nonsports sked up 16% in adults 18-49 vs. last season.

Alphabet has maintained its overall year-ago demo rating despite losing top-10 performer “Monday Night Football.” Pitching in has been the hot “Dancing With the Stars,” which has occupied more than 10% of the net’s sked, and the Thursday addition of “Grey’s Anatomy.”

Net is up double digits on Thursdays this fall thanks to “Grey’s” and “Ugly Betty,” with the medical drama beating CBS vet “CSI” head-to-head in key demos.

Bader says the Thursday turnaround is “the best thing that’s happened to” ABC this fall. “A night that used to be our Bermuda Triangle is now a night where we’re extraordinarily competitive,” he says.

He’s also happy about “Brothers & Sisters,” the new “Desperate Housewives” companion that’s overcome a slew of negative preseason buzz to turn into a solid player for the net.

Over at NBC, Reilly also has reason to smile this season. Not only is “Heroes” huge and “Deal or No Deal” still hot, but the addition of Sunday Night Football has boosted the Peacock’s overall Nielsen numbers by about 15%.

Other newcomers aren’t doing as well, but Reilly says he feels good about his frosh class and plans to be patient.

“I’m encouraged that we’re moving in the right direction,” he adds. “I feel like we’re back on brand with quality shows.”

Meanwhile, despite having launched just one modest success this season — the Wednesday drama “Jericho” — CBS execs are feeling fine.

Eye has been a model of consistency, with young shows such as “Criminal Minds,” “Ghost Whisperer” and “Jericho” helping compensate for losses on Thursday. The net, which ranks first in overall viewers and second in adults 18-49, has also improved on Sunday with the additions of “Amazing Race” and “Without a Trace.”

New season also brought the launch of a new broadcast network, the CW. It’s had a thoroughly unremarkable fall, averaging the same demo rating as the now-dead WB.

And then there’s Fox.

None of the net’s five new shows has broken out, and only two — “Standoff” and “‘Til Death” — stand a shot of making it to 2007. On the plus side, “House,” “Prison Break” and the net’s Sunday laffers all remain solid.

As long as “American Idol” returns strongly in January, however, Fox should be able to work it out, dawg, by season’s end.

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