Some programs this fall are delivering very strong ratings. Just not new programs. If TV executives want encouragement from the numbers, they have to turn to football and returning series.
Two weeks into the fall TV season, the broadcast networks have gotten off to one of their most sluggish starts ever. For the first time in at least five years, not a single new show has cracked the top 10 either among total viewers or the advertising-friendly demographic of adults aged 18 to 49, according to the Nielsen Co.
Even CBS' remake of "Hawaii Five-0," with its familiar brand name and 9 p.m. Monday time slot, has failed to sizzle and has tumbled compared with "CSI: Miami" last year.
Then there are the outright bombs. After two airings Fox axed its critically acclaimed drama about a Texas con man, "Lone Star." A pair of episodes was likewise all it took for ABC to yank the critically unheralded youth soap "My Generation."
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Industry watchers predict that ABC's legal drama "The Whole Truth" and NBC's Jimmy Smits vehicle "Outlaw" will be next on the road to oblivion. As a result, Fox — the No. 1 network among young adults for several years running — and ABC both saw their premiere-week ratings slide by double digits compared with a year ago.
As is customary, poor marketing has been cited as a factor in the demise of some new shows, especially "Lone Star." In that case, network promotion experts were presented the difficult task of trying to persuade a recession-weary public to care about a hotshot young crook who two-timed his wife and bilked people out of their life savings.
But there may be a simpler explanation: The new shows just aren't that good. Even before the season started, TV executives and critics alike grumbled that the freshman class lacked any series with breakout potential. Viewers seem to agree, at least so far.
"There simply weren't many shows with positive preseason buzz," said Steve Sternberg, a veteran TV analyst who writes a subscription-based newsletter for media buyers. "I keep reading how the press is surprised about 'Lone Star,' but I don't know a single one of my peers who thought it would do well."
Yet while the new shows have clearly disappointed, there are still positive signs for the networks. Chief among them: The overall erosion in viewership for broadcast TV appears to be slowing at last. The five over-the-air, English-language networks (ABC, CBS, Fox, NBC and CW) are still down in total viewers compared with year-ago figures, but it's by the smallest amount — 2 percent — in at least four seasons.
Viewers have turned out in droves for favorite returning shows, such as Fox's high school musical "Glee," which is soaring to record ratings in its second season. Meanwhile, NFL games on CBS, NBC and Fox as well as ESPN are hitting all-time highs.