Viewers return to tube

Premiere-week promo push pays off

So far, so good.

Premiere week inspired a glimmer of optimism in even the most jaded network executives (well, unless they were at NBC).

After a dismal summer in which the nets once again dropped to record-low numbers — and saw their mojo usurped by rising cable titans like USA — there was no guarantee that viewers would return to the broadcast webs in time for fall.

But come back they did. Perhaps not in droves — those days are over, after all — but at least in numbers large enough to be impressive in the year 2009.

“In one sense, it’s great to see people return for broadcast TV,” said one network exec. “You saw solid sampling for new shows and a great interest in returning shows.”

The power of marketing was in force, as most shows that got a big boost opened to strong numbers: “FlashForward” at ABC, “The Jay Leno Show” at NBC, “Glee” at Fox and “NCIS: Los Angeles” at CBS.

The big news of the week may have been the surprising firepower of the Eye’s “NCIS.” Despite entering its seventh season, the military-themed procedural posted its strongest numbers yet and helped successfully launch its spinoff.

Meanwhile, it appears that comedy is finally on the comeback trail after years of false starts. If ABC can keep the momentum going on newcomers “Modern Family” and “Cougar Town,” and get some traction from fellow frosh “Hank” and “The Middle,” it will finally be in the laffer game.

And CBS’ decision to put “The Big Bang Theory” behind “Two and a Half Men” is paying off, potentially turning “Bang” into TV’s top-rated laffer. NBC’s “Community,” meanwhile, opened large but saw a disappointing dip in week two. 

Despite all this, however, the nets were far from popping the champagne last week. For starters, this was just one, heavily promoted, heavily sampled premiere week. 

Signs of weakness are still evident all over the nets — and nowhere more so than at NBC, where “Jay Leno” took a huge dip in week two and none of the net’s shows managed to crack a 4 rating with adults 18-49 last week. The Peacock’s top dramas, “Heroes” and “Law and Order: SVU,” failed to deliver even a 3 demo rating in their preems.

Also, the season’s first cancellation came Friday as CW booted models drama “The Beautiful Life” from its Wednesday sked after just two airings. It drew just 1.1 million viewers in its second and final airing.

Replacing comedy as TV’s most troubled genre was reality television. Primetime’s stable of long-running nonscripted fare is finally showing its age, as vets such as “Survivor,” “America’s Next Top Model” and “Dancing With the Stars” have slipped noticeably in recent editions.

That reinforces the ongoing concern among alternative execs at the nets that the veteran players continue to soak up any available shelf space, preventing new entries from becoming the next great reality hit.

A look at the promising newbies this fall:

n Fox’s “Glee” has averaged a 3.3/9 in 18-49 and about 7 million viewers overall in its first three outings, faring especially well in adults 18-34 (3.6/10). Even opposite big ABC and CBS preems on Wednesday, it still led its hour in adults and women 18-34.

n CW’s “Vampire Diaries” has become a good performer after bowing with the net’s largest premiere aud to date on Sept. 10 (4.9 million). It has averaged a 1.8/6 in 18-49 and a 1.9/7 in adults 18-34, and its core young female aud has stuck with it through three airings.

n NBC’s “The Jay Leno Show” opened big Sept. 14 (5.3/15 in 18-49, 18.42m) and then had a few other strong nights before settling into a lower range.

Leno’s second week average of 1.9/5 in 18-49 (and 6 million viewers overall) is still above NBC’s stated break-even point on the show (1.6 demo rating), but it’s getting dangerously close. The show ran third among the Big Three on all five nights.

NBC likely would be pleased if it settled at this range or even a bit lower — especially since the net’s 8-10 p.m. performance looks so shaky. It remains to be seen, however, if affiliates will remain onboard post-November, depending on how their late newscasts perform.

n CBS’ “NCIS: Los Angeles” opened impressively last week, winning its hour among adults 18-49 (4.4/11) and delivering the largest premiere audience for a drama on any net (18.73 million) since the Eye’s “CSI: NY” in 2004.  

n ABC may be on its way to a hit comedy for the first time in years as two newbies — “Modern Family” (4.2/11 in 18-49, 12.61m) and “Cougar Town” (4.4/11, 11.28m) — opened above expectations Wednesday. These are the biggest comedy preems on any net since ABC’s “Samantha Who,” which had a much stronger lead-in, in 2007.

Also opening strongly was “FlashForward,” which earned a 4.0/12 demo score Thursday.

Two other rookie laffers, “Hank” and “The Middle,” hop onboard this week. Also bowing this week are NBC’s “Trauma” and CBS’ “Three Rivers,” while Fox’s “The Cleveland Show” opened Sunday.

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