Jonathan Storm: Sizzlers and fizzlers

"Survivor: Nicaragua," the latest incarnation of the CBS stalwart, is one of many successes the network enjoys.
"Survivor: Nicaragua," the latest incarnation of the CBS stalwart, is one of many successes the network enjoys.

 

Posted: October 07, 2010

One thing is clear about the new TV season: It's good to be CBS.

In a fall when standard-issue police dramas and sitcoms lead the way, CBS, with 13 of the top 22 shows overall (three series are tied for No. 20), has found surprising success with new series and smart programming moves.

The other networks are struggling.

Fox and ABC already have canceled one show apiece.

The Peacock's Sunday Night Football is holding ratings up, but the network has only one scripted show that's a bona fide success.

Neither ABC's Dancing With the Stars, despite a surprising resurgence, nor Fox's Glee, which may be growing into a mass-audience hit after notable success with the coveted younger demographic, has been able to maintain its network's overall numbers.

"Don't take chances," the new shows are (sadly) teaching TV executives, as police and legal procedurals that decide a new case every week fill the success side of the ledger. Many of them, at least, combine some character development with their death and dismemberment.

Prognostications on the accompanying chart are based on a variety of factors, not just raw numbers. The season is in its infancy, even the clearest crystal ball has its flaws, and TV is a crazy game. Nonetheless, some trends are emerging.

With Lost and 24 gone, serialized shows are replacing sitcoms in the land of the dead - literally, in two cases. Fox's critically beloved Lone Star, about a bigamist, and ABC's critically disliked My Generation, about a group of pretty faces from the Austin Class of 2000, are the season's first casualties. And that gives you a hint about the critics' power.

Speaking of the land of the dead, there's not a new vampire anywhere, though Alex O'Laughlin, who played one in his first CBS series, has finally broken through in his third, starring in Hawaii Five-0, the season's biggest new hit. On a road littered with failures, it could prove to be the most successful new TV series in history based, albeit very loosely, on an old one.

For the second consecutive year, there's a new hit sitcom: CBS's Mike & Molly, about an overweight couple negotiating the minefields of dating and romance, benefits from airing after TV's favorite sitcom, Two and a Half Men, but it also shows unusual staying power.

Also getting a boost from its lead-in, a second CBS half-hour, $#*! My Dad Says, the critics' least-liked new series overall, has a strong pulse, though it's losing 20 percent of the audience of The Big Bang Theory. The new ABC sitcom, Better With You, has a similar relationship with its lead-in, The Middle, but both shows have considerably smaller audiences than the CBS sitcoms.

Comedies are especially important to the networks because they attract a younger audience than dramas, and, in general, and whether you like or not, advertisers pay more money for young eyeballs than older ones.

Making room for Mike & Molly, CBS took a gamble moving Big Bang, about a lovable quartet of science geniuses, to Thursdays at 8, knocking another younger-skewing show, Survivor, to Wednesdays at 8.

Bang is getting virtually the same ratings as last season, and Survivor has improved the Wednesday time slot by a whopping 77 percent over its previous CBS occupant, The New Adventures of Old Christine. You can credit the shuffle, more than any other move, for CBS winning the ratings race among 18-to-49-year-olds in the first two weeks of the TV season for the first time in 20 years.

Because of that, you may find network bigwigs, like the characters of Mad Men, joyously intoxicated in celebration in their executive suites. For years, they have suffered rivals' barbs that, although CBS has been the most-watched network, its elderly audience wasn't as valuable as those of supposedly more with-it outfits.

CBS also suffers from the somewhat ridiculous problem that every single one of its new series is at least a moderate success. To keep their lineups fresh and maintain business relationships, networks constantly need to introduce new series. Usually, the failures provide plenty of room. CBS new-show success puts added pressure on such aging veterans as Medium, CSI: New York and Rules of Engagement.

ABC, NBC, and Fox have the opposite troubles.

The trusty Law & Order seems to have spun another success at NBC, with L & O: Los Angeles topping the net's new-show lineup. NBC execs were also excited that one of their new shows, much-hyped The Event, a serialized conspiracy sci-fi thriller, drew big numbers for its premiere, but the second episode shed more than 1.5 million viewers, and the third episode continued the trend.

ABC may have better luck with No Ordinary Family. The series about parents and children with superpowers also lost audience in its second episode, but it may prove to be no ordinary family show. With nearly 20 percent of its under-50 adults watching the series alongside children under 18, ABC brags that it's the top show on all of prime time for family viewing.

There are as many reasons to cancel or keep a series as there are series themselves. Some shows lose more of their lead-in's ratings than others. Many are produced by the network's corporate partners.

The Nielsen Co. ratings used for this article are called "live-plus same day." In 2010, advertisers also pay for DVR playback within three days of a show's airing, a number that can be significant for series such as The Event.

Fox's Raising Hope, about a ragtag family's misadventures in child-rearing, has a particularly young audience and fits perfectly into the irreverent Fox "brand."

NBC's Chase, about a U.S. marshal in Texas, gets more viewers than its Indian call-center comedy, Outsourced, but that comedy is a good fit with NBC's other Thursday-night shows.

Nikita has pretty good gross numbers for the little CW, but many viewers may be not the young women who pay the network's bills, but older men checking out the show's hot martial-arts star, Maggie Q.

Maybe some of them are network executives looking for some lighthearted diversion. Compared to programming television, side-head karate kicks and back-over judo flips are child's play.


Contact television critic Jonathan Storm at 215-854-5618 or jstorm@phillynews.com.

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