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TV executives are optimistic despite spotty early ratings

While some new shows are struggling for viewership, networks are not declaring any disasters yet.

October 01, 2003|Greg Braxton | Times Staff Writer

With the first official week of the fall season under their belts, television network executives are keeping their fingers away from the panic button so far, despite the less-than-certain showings of some new offerings.

Even as ABC's "Threat Matrix," Fox's "Luis" and NBC's "Whoopi" struggle in total viewership and NBC's "Miss Match" and "Coupling" have fallen short of expectations, several executives said there are no true immediate disasters among the new crop.

Adding to the cautious optimism: Such returning series as "The West Wing," "ER," "8 Simple Rules for Dating My Teenage Daughter," "JAG," "Survivor" and "My Wife and Kids" have started the season with strong performances.

Each of the big three networks had something to crow about. CBS said it was pleased with the strong debuts of many of its new dramas. NBC boasted that the network remains dominant in its target audience of 18-to-49-year-olds, the demographic desired most by advertisers. ABC maintained it is the only major network with significant ratings growth from last year. Most of Fox's new shows won't be unveiled until after the baseball playoffs in October.

Final Nielsen Media ratings for the first week of the season -- Sept. 22 through last Sunday -- which were released Tuesday, show that the only new series to make the top 10 in terms of viewership was CBS' comedy "Two and a Half Men" starring Charlie Sheen.

"We're thrilled overall with the first week," said NBC Entertainment President Jeff Zucker, adding his prediction that the networks would finish roughly the same as last year, with NBC tops in the 18-to-49 demographic and CBS No. 1 in total viewers.

ABC Entertainment President Susan Lyne said, "We're feeling good, and we remain cautiously optimistic. We have many more weeks to go, and some of our shows are in very tough time periods."

Other new shows that opened well, besides CBS' "Two and a Half Men," were that network's "Cold Case," "The Handler," "Joan of Arcadia" and "Navy NCIS"; and ABC's "Hope & Faith" and "I'm With Her."

Zucker said he was pleased with the performance of the new Thursday comedy "Coupling," calling it the top-rated new comedy in the 18-to-49 demographic.

But others, particularly outside of NBC, were quick to jump on its performance, noting the comedy attracted only 15.2 million, down significantly from the "Will & Grace" lead-in with 20.2 viewers. "ER," which followed "Coupling, scored more than 23.2 million viewers.

"They have to be devastated with those results," said an executive at a rival network, who asked not to be identified.

New series that have more of a question mark on their unveiling include NBC's "Miss Match," which was trounced by its main competition, "Joan of Arcadia," last Friday; "Whoopi" and "Happy Family" and ABC's "10-8." Shows that appear to be in more trouble include Fox's "Luis" and ABC's "Threat Matrix," but network executives said there are no immediate plans to bench those series.

Although outsiders often focus on the raw numbers for series, success and failure of particular shows often depends as much on the network's expectations and the show's performance with particular target audiences. ABC executives note "Threat Matrix" is in one of prime time's toughest time slots on Thursdays at 8 p.m., battling against CBS' "Survivor: Pearl Islands" and NBC's "Friends." "We would love to see higher numbers, but it's doing about what we expected," Lyne said. "It's the toughest time period to put a new show, and as long as it's working creatively for us, and it continues to grow in its second half hour, we'll be pleased."

One of CBS' underachievers appears to be "The Brotherhood of Poland, New Hampshire," the latest effort by David E. Kelley, the creator of "The Practice" and "Ally McBeal." The drama, which debuted last Wednesday at 10 p.m. against the juggernaut of NBC's "Law & Order," attracted little more than 8 million viewers.

But CBS' top research executive, David Poltrack, was upbeat about the future of "Brotherhood," saying the debut was hurt by the two-hour installment of a new edition of "The Bachelor" as well as a lack of compatibility with its lead-in, the finale of "Big Brother 4."

"There really wasn't much of a fit between 'Big Brother' and 'Brotherhood,' " he said, adding that the comedy lead-in of "King of Queens" and "Becker" in coming weeks will be more of a match. "We feel we will get some significant resampling, because they are both vehicles that appeal to 35-plus and older audiences. This is a show that we have modest expectations for, and it needs some patience."

UPN executives said they were pleased with their new comedies, particularly "Eve" and "All of Us," while the WB's programming chief Jordan Levin expressed confidence in the network's Friday night slate that includes "All About the Andersons" and "Like Family." Those shows, Levin said, appeal to younger audiences.



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