L.A. Reid, left, Nicole Scherzinger, Paula Abdul and Simon Cowell of Fox's… (Ray Mickshaw / MCT )
The results of the first couple of weeks of the fall TV season are in, and there are some surprises.
For the first time in its 25-year history, Fox won premiere week among young adults, which cements the network's dominance in the main demographic that drives ad spending and programming decisions across the industry. It looks like it has a good shot at taking the second week as well, thanks in part to a youth-oriented sitcom sleeper hit, "New Girl," with Zooey Deschanel — already the first new show to get a full-season order. In recent years, the network has struggled to find fall hits and typically had to wait until "American Idol" opened for business in January to start piling up the big numbers.
Another shocker? Some guy named Ashton Kutcher is apparently more popular than many people realized. The actor's heavily publicized debut on "Two and a Half Men" — replacing the fired Charlie Sheen — drew a record 28.7 million viewers, and the audience declined much less than many expected for the second episode Monday, with 20.5 million tuning in.
Except for NBC — crushed in its worst opening week ever — every network had at least a couple of early, modest successes to point to, including ABC's trashy soap "Revenge" and Jet Age caper "Pan Am," CBS' procedural "Unforgettable" and even Fox's Simon Cowell-produced "The X Factor," which boosted the network's position relative to last year — even with much lower-than-anticipated ratings.
"A lot of people are still coming to broadcast television … and are sampling a lot of the new shows and coming back to some of their favorites," said Preston Beckman, Fox's scheduling chief. Though network TV remains under attack from cable and online rivals, he added, "it still delivers more eyeballs than any other platform."
"Two and a Half Men" provided a startling demonstration of that power. Even though the tabloid drama surrounding Sheen's meltdown earlier this year all but guaranteed some extra tune-in for the show's return with a new costar, few predicted the Season 9 premiere would more than double last season's average. The episode drew a 25 share of the 18-to-49-year-old audience that advertisers seek — a figure almost never seen for scripted entertainment these days, and a huge victory for CBS and studio Warner Bros., vindicated in their decision to bring back the show after Sheen's meltdown.
"Men" was so powerful that it muscled viewers away from "Dancing With the Stars," which ABC was hoping would draw big numbers for a new cast that included Chaz Bono, the show's first transgender contestant, and cable host Nancy Grace.
"Those CBS numbers on Monday were huge," said Jeff Bader, who oversees scheduling for ABC. "The audience, I think a lot of it came from us."
CBS executives won't say where they think "Men" might end up settling this season. But "maybe there's a little more gas in the tank than people would've thought," said scheduling chief Kelly Kahl.
Elsewhere, CBS — which remains the most-watched network among all viewers —- helped balance its Tuesday schedule with "Unforgettable," a procedural about a detective with a rare ability to remember every day of her life. The show is skewing somewhat younger compared with the legal drama it replaced, "The Good Wife," which moved to Sundays, Kahl said.
Fox, meanwhile, may have had its victory party tempered by promising too much. A good deal of early analysis has treated both "X Factor" — the singing competition overseen by Cowell — and the dinosaur epic "Terra Nova" as disappointments, if only because the publicity campaigns and ratings hopes were so keen.
But both those shows helped Fox soar 31% in the 18-to-49 demographic compared with last year's premiere week, and that made all the difference: Indeed, it was the only network to show any growth (ABC was flat; CBS and NBC were down).
Another key advantage for Fox: It doesn't offer network programming in the 10 p.m. hour, typically a depot for scripted dramas. Those shows have lately had a difficult time scraping together enough viewers to satisfy network executives.
ABC has defied that trend this season, at least so far. "Revenge" and "Pan Am" performed surprisingly well in their 10 p.m. slots. In the case of "Pan Am," pairing it with an iconic show entering its final season may have helped.
"Women are the core audience for ABC and 'Pan Am'" — which focuses on a time when flight attendants were still known as stewardesses — "obviously has a natural appeal for women," Bader said. " 'Desperate Housewives' was the perfect lead-in for it, and it's on a night where the main competition is football."
The network that most needed a hit, of course, was the one that did not find one: NBC.