One week into the fall TV season, a strange and unsettling mood is creeping over network programmers. It's called optimism.
Dark clouds still linger over the broadcast industry, but surprisingly strong numbers for such new shows as ABC's comedy "Modern Family" and CBS' "NCIS: Los Angeles" and "The Good Wife" have executives hoping that their long-beleaguered prime-time schedules are finally on the rebound.
"Despite all the naysayers, it seems like we still have a viable business here," CBS scheduling chief Kelly Kahl said in an interview Friday.
Through the first four nights of the season, CBS was up a healthy 7% in viewers to an average of 14.2 million, compared with the same period last year, according to the Nielsen Co. Fox surged 35% to 9.4 million, helped along by last Monday's two-hour premiere of "House," which averaged 17.1 million total viewers, a huge tally for a drama in its sixth season.
ABC slipped a modest 4% to 14 million, but that doesn't factor in Sunday night's premieres of "Desperate Housewives" and "Brothers & Sisters," two of the network's strongest dramas (those numbers are not due until later today). On Thursday, "FlashForward," ABC's heavily promoted new drama, became the first regular series to beat CBS' reality war horse "Survivor" among total viewers (12.5 million versus 11.7 million) and young adults since NBC's "Friends" did so back in 2004.
It's safe to say that at least in the case of returning shows, viewers gravitated toward favorite characters facing new twists. For example, in last week's premiere, the title character of "House," the cranky physician played by Hugh Laurie, found the tables turned when he was dragged away for treatment for a Vicodin addiction.
"Clearly, we built up to something that fans of the show wanted to see resolved," said Fox scheduling guru Preston Beckman.
In any case, if TV's upward trend continues, it will represent quite a turnabout from last season, the least-watched in history for the five broadcast networks and one that prompted forecasts of an imminent reckoning for the 60-year-old commercial television business.
At the time, CBS was the only network to log any significant growth or create a new hit (the crime procedural "The Mentalist"). Executives at rival networks watched with dismay as their new lineups mostly sank, then slogged through a long and difficult summer of negotiating with advertisers for rates on commercial time. In their annual "upfront" selling season, the five major networks took in an estimated $7.2 billion, down 22% compared with last year.
It is, of course, far too early to predict a permanent network comeback. Each of the outlets still has shows that underperformed -- among them, ABC's "Dancing With the Stars," which saw some of its lowest ratings ever in three airings last week -- and plenty of powerful starters may well fade in the coming weeks. Then there are NBC and CW, which are not sharing in the early ratings bounty.
Airing opposite stiff drama competition at 10 p.m. weeknights, NBC's "The Jay Leno Show" has tumbled since its impressive Sept. 14 premiere, last week averaging a lackluster 6 million total viewers. Overall, the network dived 19% through Thursday to 7 million average viewers, although the picture is sure to improve for NBC once Sunday's NFL game is factored into the mix.
The CW, aimed at adults under age 35, shrank by 28%, to 2.2 million viewers. In the season's first casualty, the network on Friday axed "The Beautiful Life," a glitzy new drama from executive producer Ashton Kutcher, after just two airings. But on the bright side, Thursday's "The Vampire Diaries" is connecting with its core audience of young women.
The sense of a rising tide is so strong that NBC says it's poised to share in the good fortune. Mitch Metcalf, who supervises scheduling for the network, pointed to success launching the Thursday comedy "Community" as well as Leno.
"Community" "is going to be a long-term player for us, just like 'The Office' and '30 Rock,' " Metcalf said. As for Leno, "Some nights are going to be stronger than others. We knew that going in."