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TV networks off to slow start

Audiences not awed by Fall TV

Welcome to network TV’s latest reality: Mediocre is the new good and good is the new great. And “great”? Well, everyone’s still waiting on that.

As the fall TV launch winds down, network execs are once again readjusting the bar.

This year’s lackluster season has so far seen just a handful of promising premieres, including CBS’ “The Mentalist,” CW’s “90210,” Fox’s “Fringe” and, after just one airing, ABC’s “Life on Mars.”

None of these can be deemed blockbusters, though, and returning shows — particularly sophomore skeins that were held back during last year’s strike-disrupted season — are having trouble regainingtraction.

The exception is CBS, whose core returnees such as the “CSI” trio, “Two and a Half Men,” “Criminal Minds” and “NCIS” are off to impressive starts in an otherwise down market. The Warner Bros. TV-produced “Mentalist” on Wednesday became the first CBS frosh to earn a full-season pickup.

“I keep coming back to the strike,” said Preston Beckman, Fox’s exec VP, strategic program planning and research. “This is the year, as an industry, we’re paying the price for that.”

The nets also seem to be feeling the impact as digital video recorders reach critical mass, and primetime series are more readily available to be streamed via network websites and such programming hubs as Hulu.

“We don’t even know what these shows’ ratings actually look like,” said ABC Entertainment exec VP Jeff Bader. “Our shows have seen over a million extra people when you count in DVR usage, as much as 20 percent. That’s huge… It’s going to be hard getting people to wait for those live-plus-seven ratings.”

Also not helping matters: The most dramatic, gut-wrenching TV on the air right now isn’t on the nets, but rather on cable news and financial channels. The hotly contested election and collapsing economy means a segment of the population is living through its own worst week — rather than watching “Worst Week.”

“Cable news numbers are way up — and that has to be coming from somewhere,” Bader noted.

And then there were those three debates over the first 24 nights of the season that have disrupted the rollouts of the nets’ skeds.

All is not lost: The networks have an unusually robust roster of midseason shows in the works that could kick some life into the Nielsens come January — not to mention the return of faves such as “American Idol” and “Lost.”

But for now, the networks may have to settle for an unremarkable fall. Among early observations:

  • CBS is scoring with stability. A year after the Eye network attempted to expand out of its procedural drama rut with such shows as “Viva Laughlin,” “Swingtown” and “Cane,” its back-to-basics lineup is paying off with returning franchises and new crime drama “The Mentalist.”

    “Less swinging and singing means more ka-ching,” quipped a rival network exec.

    The Eye’s older-skewing fare appears to be more DVR-proof, and the meat-and-potatoes theme of the net’s series may be resonating among stressed-out auds looking for true escapism.

    Shows like “The Mentalist” clearly “fit more comfortably in the wheelhouse,” said CBS Entertainment prexy Nina Tassler.

    Exec produced by Bruno Heller, “The Mentalist” (from Warner Bros. TV) has averaged 16.1 million viewers, making it No. 7 among all primetime skeins, and a 3.8 rating/9 share with young adults. Simon Baker stars.

    Another factor not to be overlooked is that while its rivals ripped apart the foundations of their skeds to roll out firstrun reality programming over the summer, CBS kept most of its regular sked intact via repeats. This may have helped gain viewers for its returning shows, which as a group have performed very well.

    Tassler said she believed the Eye’s quick return to original episodes last spring post-strike “had to be a factor” in the network’s current success.

    “We were the first network back on the air,” she said.

  • Nets are still feeling the strike sting. Where CBS was able to get its shows on quickly post-strike — and was the only network to produce its entire slate of pilots prior to the upfronts — the nets most impacted by the work stoppage, NBC and ABC, continue to be impacted.

    “It’s frustrating for us, as the shows have been very good this year,” Bader said. “It’s just a question of this universe and so many viewing options.”

    Alphabet’s Wednesday night dramas (“Pushing Daisies,” “Private Practice” and “Dirty Sexy Money”), which had been off the air since January, relaunched with a thud and are off collectively by about 40% from their winning numbers at this time a year ago. And NBC’s once-powerful “Heroes” also off the air for most of the year, is no longer a bigtime hit, and the net’s well-rested “Chuck” and “Life” are struggling to make their marks.

    NBC’s strategy of ordering series sans pilots has yielded unspectacular early results. “Knight Rider” and “My Own Worst Enemy” haven’t done much, while Thursday comedy “Kath & Kim” only looked OK in its debut.

    At least ABC is well-positioned for restocking its sked in the second half of the season, opting to air only one new scripted series this fall and holding off on shows including “Lost,” “Scrubs,” “The Bachelor” and newbie “The Goode Family.”

  • Schedules still matter. Auds may indeed be watching more programs on their own timetables — homes with DVRs now comprise about 28% of Nielsen’s national sample — but where shows reside on the primetime skeds still plays an important role in getting shows sampled.

    The season’s most impressive newcomers after multiple airings — Tuesday’s “Fringe” and “The Mentalist” — are thriving by playing behind very strong, compatible veteran dramas: “House” and “NCIS,” respectively. Of course, a good lead-in doesn’t always work, to which CBS’ “Eleventh Hour” and NBC’s “My Own Worst Enemy” can attest.

    Give CW’s “90210” extra credit, then, for emerging as one of the season’s strongest newcomers even though it leads off a night.

  • Youth is served … eventually. Nielsen has issued only premiere week ratings for its “live plus 7-day” DVR playback info, but it’s clear that younger adults are opting to watch their faves in the days after they air.

    “Grey’s Anatomy,” “House,” “The Office,” “Heroes” and “Fringe” were the shows that gained the most 18-49 viewers. More auds, meanwhile, chose to tune in live for crime shows like the Eye’s “Criminal Minds” and “Cold Case.”

    For advertising purposes, the networks, of course, would like to shift more viewing to same-day. They’ve been unable to get a handle on just what the DVR spikes will mean to their bottom line, and they sell spots based on “C3” ratings — the average aud for commercials during live broadcasts as well as DVR playback within three days.

  • In the stream of things: Then there’s the more widely available free streaming of shows. With the ability to now watch virtually everything on demand, either on DVR or via computer, one webhead wonders whether the nets are being harmed by allowing programming to be available so widely.

    “As an industry, have we made it less exciting to show up for new shows or returning shows?” an exec said. “There’s a feeling that ‘I don’t have to be there, I can catch it online the next morning.’ The urgency, the excitement, the immediacy of the new season has pretty much gone away.

    “The question I keep asking is, are the declines in ratings and the loss in revenue being offset by increases in other revenue streams? I don’t think the answer is yes.”

  • Comedy is still in crisis. TV’s latest batch of comedy contenders aren’t going to be the shows that help save the genre. The best-reviewed of the bunch, CBS’ “Worst Week,” is just doing so-so on Mondays, where CBS’ other returning half-hours are performing well. Other newbies, “Kath & Kim” and “Gary Unmarried,” have had similar unremarkable bows.

    And Fox has already made the first cancellation of the season. No surprise, it was a half-hour — “Do Not Disturb.”

“I think the networks are bored with the traditional format,” an exec said. “They’ve been trying to reinvent something that didn’t need reinventing.”