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New series struggle to impress

'Smallville' continues growing strength throughout season

HOLLYWOOD — The current television season may go down as one of the weakest on record in terms of successful new series.

Amid the backdrop of the events of Sept. 11, viewers were especially picky as to which new programs they were willing to invest time in. Only a handful made much of an impression on auds, with one in particular clearly at the head of the class.

Before we divulge this year’s “Rookie of the Year,” though, let’s look at some of the other 2001-02 highlights:

  • CBS’ Thursday drama “CSI: Crime Scene Investigation” has moved into mega-hit status. Last season’s top rookie averages 23.5 million viewers, now consistently builds off its “Survivor” lead-in and has become the first drama since “ER” bowed in 1994 to outdraw it for a season.

  • The soap-opera storylines on “Friends” resonated with longtime viewers, many of whom came back for what turned out to be the laffer’s strongest season in five years.

  • NBC’s Friday drama “Law & Order: SVU” emerged as a powerhouse. Third-year “Law” spinoff is the only primetime series to win its hour every week this season.

  • On the other side of the coin was the complete collapse of ABC’s “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire.” Quizzer, unfortunately for the Alphabet, is now a liability anywhere it runs.

  • Among new series, honorable mentions go to: “According to Jim” (ABC), “Bernie Mac” (Fox), “Crossing Jordan” (NBC), “Enterprise” (UPN), “The Guardian” (CBS) and “Reba” (WB).

But none of these stood out as much as the WB’s “Smallville,” which bolted out of the box with huge numbers and has stayed strong throughout the season. It helped the network transform a “Buffy the Vampire Slayer”-less Tuesday into a major success overnight.

With sophomore drama “Gilmore Girls” taking over for “Buffy” at 8 and “Smallville” stepping in the slot of “Buffy” spinoff “Angel” at 9, the Frog has shown sizable year-to-year gains on Tuesday — including 31% in teens, 21% in adults 18-49 and 22% in total viewers.

The WB may still reach only about 90% of the country, but the numbers produced by young-Superman saga “Smallville” are impressive by any standards.

Skein, starring Tom Wellig as high schooler Clark Kent grappling with his superpowers, immediately became the Frog net’s No. 1 series in adults 18-49 (2.7/7), adults 18-34 (3.3/9), persons 12-34 (3.4/10), males 12-34 (3.3/10), men 18-34 (3.2/9), men 18-49 (2.7/7) and male teens (3.6/12).

As is evident from these numbers, the series plays well in a wide number of categories. In fact, it is the most gender-balanced of any program in primetime — especially helpful for the femme-focused Frog.

It has boosted the WB’s Tuesday-at-9 hour year-to-year by a whopping 47% in both total viewers (to 5.8 million) and the net’s target demo of persons 12-34.

And “Smallville” has closed the season with a flurry. On the second Tuesday of the May sweep, it posted some of its best numbers in months, including a victory among viewers under 35 — in an hour that includes NBC’s “Frasier” and “Scrubs” and Fox’s “24.”

“To be in this place on Tuesdays is pretty amazing,” the WB’s entertainment prexy Jordan Levin tells Variety. “I hear so many stories of families watching ‘Smallville’ with their kids. It’s a new generation learning the mythology.

“Also, a lot of the themes of the series, I think, resonate with the newfound patriotism in terms of heroism.”

In a year of listless look-alikes and dark dramas, it was also this season’s breath of fresh air.

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