Fox medical drama wins ratings race

And they’re off.

On the opening night of the television season, a huge “House” lifted Fox to victory Monday while making life more difficult for new and returning shows on rival nets.

CBS rookie comedy “Accidentally on Purpose” bowed to nothing-special scores, and NBC’s “Heroes” and ABC’s “Dancing With the Stars” were among the veteran shows to fall off noticeably vs. last year.

The night was also a tough one for NBC’s “The Jay Leno Show,” which was saddled with a lower lead-in and predictably took a hit opposite tougher competition.

Overall, the addition of “House” to the night helped ABC, CBS, NBC, Fox and CW to a slightly better combined 18-49 average than a year ago — an impressive achievement as DVR usage continues to rise.

According to Nielsen nationals that include same-night DVR playback, Fox’s “House” kicked off its sixth season with a dominant two-hour seg that averaged a 6.7 rating/16 share in adults 18-49 and 17.13 million viewers overall.

This was up 18% from the show’s hourlong bow on a Tuesday a year ago and represents a monster 179% improvement in 18-49 (from 2.4/6) for Fox over last season’s premiere night tandem of “Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles” and “Prison Break.”

Fox won Monday in most key categories, marking its first 18-49 victory on the opening night of the season. Next week, “Lie to Me” slides into the 9 o’clock slot.

Elsewhere, CBS ran second Monday in demos as “How I Met Your Mother” looked good in its new leadoff role (3.6/10 in 18-49, 9.09m), in line with “The Big Bang Theory” in the timeslot a year ago.

New Jenna Elfman half-hour “Accidentally on Purpose” followed with OK numbers (3.3/8 in 18-49, 8.91m), but was down 18% from what the potent “Big Bang” launched with in the time period last year. That 8:30 p.m. softness made it more difficult for “Two and a Half Men” (4.5/10, 13.63m), which dipped by 15% from its year-ago premiere.

The Eye rallied at 9:30 p.m., where “Big Bang Theory” shined in its plum new timeslot (4.7/11 in 18-49, 12.96m), hitting series highs and providing the net with big gains over last year’s debut of “Worst Week.” The third-year skein became the first regular CBS laffer to build on an original seg of “Two and a Half Men” in 18-49 since “King of Queens” in April 2007.

“CSI: Miami” closed out the night a winner for CBS (4.3/11 in 18-49, 14.20m), though it was down 17% from its impressive start of a year ago.

ABC’s “Dancing With the Stars” (4.1/10, 17.79m) kicked off its ninth edition with its lowest premiere scores to date, dropping 23% from last year but still standing as the night’s most-watched program overall. It finished second to Fox in 18-49 from 8 to 10 p.m., edging past the comedy block on CBS.

And at 10, the second-season debut of “Castle” hung in there (2.3/6 in 18-49, 9.27m), down just a tick from the season premiere of “Boston Legal” in the timeslot last season despite the lower lead-in score from “Dancing.”

NBC had a tough night all around, as the two-hour season premiere of “Heroes” (2.8/7 in 18-49, 6.11m) was off more than 40% from its start of a year ago (when it aired on the night from 9 to 11 p.m.), opening with numbers more in line with its close to last season.

And “Jay Leno” (1.8/5 in 18-49, 5.81m) ran third among the broadcasters at 10 p.m., delivering roughly one-third of its week-earlier premiere night rating and posting its lowest scores to date.

At CW, “One Tree Hill” (1.1/3 in 18-49, 2.29m) was about in line with its week-earlier season premiere, but “Gossip Girl” (1.1/2 in 18-49, 2.00m) fell off and was likely impacted by Fox’s expanded episode of “House.”

ESPN’s “Monday Night Football” continued its hot start to the season with its Colts-Dolphins matchup (5.9/15 in 18-49, 14.71m), which was the night’s No. 2 program in 18-49 and No. 1 in key male demos. It also stands as the most-watched cable program of 2009.

In latenight, CBS’ “Late Show With David Letterman” earned its best overnight number (5.6 household rating/14 share) since December 2005 (Oprah Winfrey) thanks to a visit from President Obama. “Late Show” also likely scored its first nightly victory over NBC’s “Tonight Show With Conan O’Brien” in adults 18-49.

The ubiquitous Obama was making his sixth appearance on “Late Show,” but his first as president.

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