An apparent hunger for security and stability appeared to lead viewers back to familiar television franchises last week as the TV season got underway, with several established sitcoms and dramas posting record or near-record ratings while new programs and unscripted series for the most part struggled.
Programmers have been closely monitoring results for their revised prime-time lineups seeking to glean any hint of an altered national mood--at least in term of entertainment preferences--following the terrorist attacks that occurred Sept. 11.
The best news for the networks is that viewers have returned in large numbers to prime-time entertainment programs, seemingly looking for an escape from the news coverage that dominated the airwaves--and continues to fill all-news cable channels--in the aftermath of the attacks.
And while viewers have sampled some new offerings, the real story thus far has been heightened viewing of comedies and dramas such as "Friends," "Everybody Loves Raymond," "ER" and "Law & Order," while the appetite for fabricated "reality" shows--including ABC's second version of "The Mole," which opened poorly Friday--has at least in the short term appeared to dwindle.
"You could make an argument that people were looking for the comfort level of programs they knew, and it was very, very hard for new programs to cut through," said Alan Wurtzel, NBC's president of research and media development. Wurtzel also cautioned that judging new shows might be unfair because of "a certain level of confusion" among the public in terms of when programs were to premiere, given that most series were delayed a week by the wall-to-wall news coverage.
By contrast, people knew where to find "Friends," which drew its biggest audience in more than 51/2 years, or "Everybody Loves Raymond," which attracted its highest rating ever. In similar fashion, CBS' military drama "JAG" posted its second-best rating and NBC's "Law & Order" garnered the biggest audience for a season premiere in the program's 12-year run. Series such as "Frasier," ABC's family comedy "My Wife and Kids" and CBS' "Judging Amy" also fared well. Even a rerun of "The West Wing"--scheduled to allow the producers to generate a topical episode to kick off the show's third season on Wednesday--amassed 14.5 million viewers, a larger audience than the episode posted when it was originally broadcast in 1999.
The story wasn't entirely bleak for new programs. UPN's latest entry in the "Star Trek" mythology, "Enterprise," beamed up 12.5 million viewers Wednesday--the network's highest rating since its inaugural telecast of "Star Trek: Voyager" in 1995. NBC's "Crossing Jordan" and CBS' dramas "The Education of Max Bickford" and "The Guardian," starring Richard Dreyfuss and Simon Baker, respectively, got off to respectable starts as well.
Two new series dealing with the CIA also premiered during the seven-day period that ended Sunday, the first official week of the new TV season. "Alias," a somewhat fanciful premise about a young woman recruited to spy for a shadowy covert organization, was introduced by ABC in a commercial-free format and, based on preliminary estimates, attracted nearly 15 million viewers, beating NBC's "Law & Order: Criminal Intent," the third entry in that durable franchise.
CBS' "The Agency," which focuses on CIA operatives, didn't fare as well, averaging 12 million viewers--about 10 million fewer than watched the network's "CSI: Crime Scene Investigation" in the hour preceding it--against NBC's "ER" while experiencing a marked audience decline in its second half-hour. (In a seeming reference to current events, CBS ran promos for the show Sunday in which the voiceover intoned, "Now, more than ever, America needs the unsung heroes of 'The Agency."')
Several other new shows made even less of a splash, including CBS' "Wolf Lake" and its comedies "Danny" and "The Ellen Show," with the latter's second episode Friday losing more than half the audience that viewed a Sept. 24 preview after "Raymond." ABC fared moderately better with the "Moonlighting"-esque "Thieves," while the Fox serial "Pasadena" got off to a thudding start--at 4.6 million viewers, tumbling almost 40% off tune-in for the network's sci-fi show "Dark Angel."
Viewing of news magazines such as "60 Minutes" and "Dateline NBC" has remained above average since the hijackings, and all-news cable networks continue to exceed year-ago levels.
Unscripted series, meanwhile, almost uniformly delivered disappointing ratings last week. ABC's new version of "The Mole" finished fourth in its time slot Friday with only about 5.5 million viewers, and the news wasn't much better for CBS' "The Amazing Race," NBC's "Lost" and Fox's "Love Cruise."
Some executives have expressed concern that the sort of self-absorbed mock soap opera elements of these so-called "reality" shows may not play as well given the true depictions of hardship displayed within news programs. Any presumption that unscripted programs have been dealt an enduring blow, however, seems premature, with executives pointing out that it is difficult to gauge what effect preemptions and scheduling disruptions have played in undermining ratings.
"Whether it falls under the category of 'rejection of reality programming' or 'didn't know it was there,' the jury's out," said ABC Entertainment Television Group co-Chairman Stu Bloomberg regarding "The Mole."
The big test will likely come next week, when CBS launches the third version of its "Survivor" franchise, asking viewers to commiserate with 16 fame-and fortune-seekers facing hardships in the wilds of Africa. Fox also weighs in later this fall with a second edition of "Temptation Island," which the network has positioned Thursdays to follow "Survivor," hoping the CBS show's viewers will change channels.
Fox largely sat out last week in terms of series premieres, having opted to delay many programs--among them its own CIA-themed project, "24"--until after the network televises the Major League Baseball playoffs and World Series, which will air on Fox through October.