PBS' seven part WWII doc has impressive debut

PBS took a risk by skedding its seven-part World War II documentary “The War” up against premieres on the broadcast networks, but it seems to have paid off.

Sunday night’s opening installment registered a preliminary 5.0 household rating/7 share in Nielsen’s 56 metered-markets, about on par with Burns’ “Baseball” mini in 1994. That’s impressive given the multitude of viewing options these days and the stiff competition from football and the premieres of returning programs on Fox and CBS.

“The War,” from Ken Burns and Lynn Novick, averaged a solid 6.7 rating/11 share in Gotham (equating to roughly 495,000 households) and got its best ratings in Minneapolis/St. Paul (11.3/17), Seattle (8.4/15) and San Francisco (8.1/13).

Although reliable average audience estimates for the 8-10:30 p.m. telecast weren’t available, it’s likely the public broadcasting net trailed the audience of only Fox, CBS and NBC on the night, and probably was in line with ABC’s mostly repeat lineup, which averaged 6.9 million viewers.

PBS is emphasizing the project’s cumulative reach as opposed to average audience, and estimates show that 18.7 million Americans saw at least some of Sunday’s two airings of “The War.”

“In terms of television audience, the key measurement for us will be the total number of people who watch the series during the initial multi-week broadcast period,” said John Boland, PBS Chief Contend Officer.

By that measure, Burns’ “Civil War” miniseries in 1990 drew a cumulative audience of 38.9 million viewers and his “Baseball” was seen by a total of 43.1 million viewers in 1994 — the largest total audiences for any program in PBS history, according to the net.

The broadcast of “The War” was accompanied by an extensive community outreach initiative involving PBS member stations in every state — a partnership with the Library of Congress Veterans History project that extends into just about every high school in the country.

In addition, a multi-year PR campaign, PBS’ inhouse advertising division and three industry corporate underwriters — General Motors, Anheuser-Busch and Bank of America — organized what PBS has called the largest print, radion and televison campaign in the net’s history.

“The War,” which aired part two last night, continues tonight and Wednesday before concluding next Sunday, Monday and Tuesday.

Nielsen is expected to issue a cume audience for “The War” in November.

Elsewhere Sunday, opposite the marquee matchup of the early NFL season on NBC (Dallas Cowboys-Chicago Bears), Fox’s animated vets “Family Guy” and “The Simpsons” opened to strong numbers Sunday night.

It was slower going, though, for the season premieres of CBS crime dramas “Cold Case” and “Shark” — which figured to be most affected by the premiere of “The War” — while CW barely registered with its new alternative shows on the night.

According to preliminary nationals from Nielsen, the “Sunday Night Football” matchup between Dallas and Chicago averaged a 7.0 rating/17 share in adults 18-49 and 16.9 million viewers overall on the Peacock affiliates from 8:30 to 11 p.m., with the final nationals expected to come in at least 5% higher.

In Nielsen’s metered-market overnights, the Cowboys’ 34-10 victory earned a 13.7 household rating/23 share, the highest score of the net’s three games Sunday games this fall; it did a 56 share in Dallas and a 42 in Chicago.

Despite such gaudy overall, and, particularly, male numbers for NBC, Fox’s testosterone-tilting comedies “The Simpsons” and “Family Guy” couldn’t be stopped in kicking off their 19th and sixth seasons, respectively, with a bang.

At 8, following a football overrun and postgame show, “The Simpsons” averaged a prelim 4.7 rating/12 share in adults 18-49 and 9.4 million viewers overall, its best numbers since January. Net then fell off at 8:30 p.m. opposite the start of football with the 12th season opener of “King of the Hill” (prelim 3.7/9 in 18-49, 7.7 million) but then performed very well from 9 to 10 with a special “Star Wars”-themed episode of “Family Guy” (prelim 5.5/13 in 18-49, 10.7 million).

It was the best showing for “Family Guy” since the show returned to Fox in May 2005. It placed second to football among adults 18-49, but surged to the hour’s lead among persons 12-34 (7.1/19), notching a huge 9.3/24 among males 12-34.

Following the season premiere of “60 Minutes” at 7 (prelim 2.3/7 in 18-49, 11.4 million), CBS ran a distant fourth at 8 o’clock with gameshow “Power of 10″ (1.7/4 in 18-49, 7.5 million). Weak perf (about half of what “Amazing Race” did on the same night a year ago) certainly contributed to a lower start for “Cold Case” (3.0/7 in 18-49, 12.3 million), which was down about 25% year to year.

Eye’s “Shark” placed second at 10 p.m. in its new timeslot premiere (prelim 2.7/7 in 18-49, 11.5 million), down sharply from “Without a Trace” a year ago (prelim 4.8/12 in 18-49, 17.6 million).

At ABC, a two-hour repeat of “Extreme Makeover: Home Edition” averaged a prelim 2.1/6 in 18-49 and 6.7 million viewers overall, and a “Desperate Housewives” recap show did pretty well at 9 p.m. (3.1/7 in 18-49, 9.0 million viewers overall) — on par in adults 18-49 with the “Cold Case” premiere on CBS.

CW barely registered from 7 to 8 p.m. with the series premieres of pop culture mag “CW Now” (prelim 0.2/1 in 18-49, 1.0 million viewers overall) and video show “Online Nation” (0.3/1 in 18-49, 1 million).

As for “The War,” the PBS mini about World War II from Ken Burns and Lynn Novick, averaged a 5.0 household rating/7 share in Nielsen’s 56 metered markets, about what ABC did with its repeat lineup but behind what the other major broadcasters did with fresh programming. Impressively, the 5.0 is in line with the 5.1 the opening night of Burns’ “Baseball” earned for PBS in 1994, when there weren’t as many viewing options.

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