NBC cop drama pulls in big numbers

There’s still some magic in the Thursday 10 o’clock hour for NBC, which followed big numbers for the “ER” finale with a nice start for new cop drama “Southland.”

Although it didn’t put up huge Nielsens in its bow Thursday — low viewing levels due to holiday and spring-break festivities lowered the ceiling for programs on every network — “Southland” launched well, outshining fellow premiere entry “Harper’s Island” on CBS and standing as NBC’s top drama debut in more than 18 months.

The Peacock also saw decent numbers for the night’s third debut, Amy Poehler comedy “Parks and Recreation,” which was amply protected between two new episodes of hit laffer “The Office.” A bigger test for it comes this week when regular 8 o’clock show “My Name Is Earl” serves as its lead-in.

NBC has reason to be pleased with “Southland,” the gritty cop drama from John Wells that slid into the 10 p.m. slot after his “ER” bowed out on April 2. With the exception of a handful of limited-run trial series, “Southland” reps NBC’s first regular Thursday 10 p.m. entry other than “ER” since “L.A. Law” in the spring of 1994.

According to Nielsen national estimates that include same-night DVR playback, “Southland” averaged a slot-leading 3.2 rating/9 share in adults 18-49 and 9.86 million viewers overall, winning its hour in all the 18-34, 18-49 and 25-54 demos. It also saw its demo scores grow at the half-hour mark (3.3 vs. 3.1 in 18-49), becoming the first 10 p.m. premiere on any network to do so since NBC’s “Medium” in January 2005.

There was a clear tune-in bounce for “Southland,” which spiked by 3 million viewers from its “30 Rock” lead-in (3.1/9 in 18-49, 6.81m). Skein was especially popular in Los Angeles (where the show is set), averaging a 5.3 overnight household rating/share, compared with a 4.4 for “Harper’s Island.” The 5.3 is roughly 25% higher than the L.A. average for “ER” in 2009 (excepting its finale).

The “Southland” demo score of 3.2 is also the best for any of the nets’ midseason dramas, a rather unimpressive crop that includes ABC’s “Castle,” “Cupid” and “The Unusuals,” Fox’s “Dollhouse” and NBC’s “Kings.” And for the Peacock, it’s the best since both “Life” and “Bionic Woman” earned the same 3.2 in their preems in September 2007.

“Southland” also exhibited strong balance in age categories as well as gender. In 18-49, it delivered a 10 share among both men and women, with its appeal to males likely to help it when it takes on a much more female-driven “Private Practice” on ABC beginning April 23.

“Private Practice” aired a repeat on this night and wasn’t a factor (1.3/4 in 18-49, 4.22m). It will also air an encore episode this week, giving “Southland” a good shot at maintaining its premiere-week momentum.

It appears that “Private Practice” and “Southland” won’t have to worry much about CBS in the 10 p.m. hour down the season’s stretch, as the Eye’s “Harper’s Island” opened to lackluster numbers (2.6/8 in 18-49, 10.21m).

“Harper’s Island,” a 13-week mystery event in which a different character gets murdered each week, dropped off from its “CSI” lead-in (3.8/10 in 18-49, 16.62m) and declined on the half-hour. It also earned a mere 5 share in adults 18-34 — a demo CBS hoped to tap into with this skein.

As for “Parks and Recreation,” it opened with a 3.0/9 in 18-49 and 6.88 million viewers overall, retaining 88% of its lead-in from a special “The Office.” The early “Office” seg, though, delivered the net’s best score in the timeslot this season (3.4/11 in 18-49), making it unlikely that “Parks” can hold up as well when “My Name Is Earl” returns this week.

NBC and CBS tied for the night’s lead among adults 18-49, with the Eye prevailing among total viewers. The Peacock’s 9 p.m. seg of “The Office” (3.9/11 in 18-49, 8.02m) scored a rare head-to-head victory over “CSI” to stand as the night’s top show in 18-49.

While Fox remained competitive on the night with “Bones” (2.5/8 in 18-49, 9.01m) and “Hell’s Kitchen” (3.3/9, 7.54m), ABC’s struggles in Thursday’s opening hour continued.

Half-hours “In the Motherhood” (1.3/4 in 18-49, 4.51m) and “Samantha Who?” (1.4/4, 4.83m) drifted downward further and could be on the chopping block. “Ugly Betty” was set to return May 7, but it wouldn’t be a surprise if the show comes back a little sooner.

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