ABC family comedy adds new viewers in second season

In a fall season lacking breakout hits, most of the ratings focus has zeroed in on huge gains for sophomore sensations “Modern Family” and “Glee.”

But don’t forget ABC’s “The Middle.”

The single-camera comedy about a middle-class family in Indiana has been picking up steam in recent weeks and is now also up sharply vs. its modest rookie year. It hit some same-night series highs earlier this month — a 2.9 rating/9 share in adults 18-49 and 9.4 million viewers overall, according to Nielsen — and is playing an increasingly bigger role in the net’s Wednesday comedy success.

After airing last season at 8:30 p.m. behind the quickly canceled “Hank” and often overlooked as “that show that’s on before ‘Modern Family,’ ” “The Middle” has taken off this year in its new, tougher but higher-profile 8 p.m. timeslot. It consistently ranks second to CBS reality vet “Survivor.”

In Nielsen’s most current season-to-date averages through seven weeks (which includes five weeks of seven-day DVR playback), “The Middle” has surged 26% year-to-year in adults 18-49 rating (2.9 vs. 2.3) and 29% in total viewers (9.4 million vs. 7.3 million). And its biggest gains have come in even younger demos like adults 18-34 (up 35%, 2.3 vs. 1.7) and teens 12-17 (up 55%, 1.7 vs. 1.1).

Some of the growth might be tied to time-period competition, as NBC’s struggling new drama “Undercovers” is the only scripted broadcast alternative in the 8 o’clock hour; by comparison, last fall “Hank” and “The Middle” opposed CBS comedies from 8 to 9. But in a 100-plus-channel universe, of course, auds can flip elsewhere.

Even though “The Middle” has been on the air for 14 months (airing in multiple timeslots some of those weeks), about 100,000 viewers on Nov. 3 were first-timers to the show — a surprisingly high number, according to Larry Hyams, VP of audience analysis at ABC.

And of those who discover it, more are sticking around.

“Only around 34% of the audience early this season was watching consistently week to week, but now that’s up to 45%,” he says. “That’s how shows become bigger, because they have more regular viewers.”

He also notes that “The Middle” is now holding on to half of the local lead-in from ABC stations (many of which air “Wheel of Fortune” in the 7:30 half-hour), up from 42% in September.

And 56% of the “Middle” audience now also watches 9 p.m. tentpole “Modern Family,” which itself is up 41% this fall to become TV’s No. 1 half-hour in 18-49.

Hyams notes that this correlation percentage, while seemingly not all that high, is larger than that for the leadoff hitters of primetime’s other two-hour comedy blocks.

For example, 51% of the audience that tunes in at 8 p.m. Monday on CBS for “How I Met Your Mother” sticks around for “Two and a Half Men” at 9; that percentage is 45% between “Community” and “The Office” on NBC’s Thursday; and 43% between Fox’s “The Simpsons” and “Family Guy” on Fox’s Sunday.

And of course, if ABC now has two young Wednesday tentpoles, it’s halfway to a potentially powerhouse comedy quartet.

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