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Crunch time for Freshmen shows

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For fans of freshman skeins such as “Men in Trees,” “Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip” or “Friday Night Lights,” the coming weeks could go a long way in determining if they’ll be back next fall.

All three of these ratings-challenged series will get uninterrupted runs of five weeks or longer to expand their audience — at a time when their respective nets are trying to get a handle on their needs for next season.

This time of the season is also key for on-the-fence frosh because after the February sweeps, viewing habits change as most of the top scripted shows on the sked go into repeats — and viewership in general begins to decline. And if there’s no improvement with these shows in January and February, there’s no guarantee they’ll be back for their final batch of episodes in the ratings-sensitive May sweep.

The Alphabet’s “Men in Trees” was on the upswing in its most recent outing last Thursday (3.6 rating/10 share in adults 18-49, 10.4 million viewers overall), its second best score in five firstrun tries behind “Grey’s Anatomy.”

That still repped just 41% retention of its 18-49 lead-in, and ABC would like to see it get closer to a 4 rating as it airs behind firstrun episodes of “Grey’s” for six straight weeks. In seven firstrun airings on Friday with much weaker lead-ins, “Men” averaged a tepid 2.0.

NBC’s “Studio 60” isn’t as good a fit thematically with its skedmate, “Heroes,” but the Aaron Sorkin skein can’t complain about the sizable lead-in it provides. Monday night, in the first of six straight original episodes behind the rookie smash (which did a 6.6), “Studio” delivered a 3.1 demo rating — up from the 2.9 for its last original episode on Dec. 4.

The show averaged a 3.3 in the November sweep, and the net would like to see it grow by a few ticks during this run of originals that will continue through the end of February.

And then there’s “Friday Night Lights,” which will lead off NBC’s Wednesday lineup for six straight weeks. Show has hovered around a 2.4 rating in a timeslot where a 3 rating would be considered a success.

One thing that “Men,” “Studio” and “Friday” have in common is that they are favorites at their respective nets — and the slightest improvement at this time could be enough to tilt the renewal odds in their favor.

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