Pushed into service following the failure of The Playboy Club, expectations for the NBC newsmagazine Rock Center With Brian Williams were understandably modest. Two episodes in, and the Peacock appears to have yet another ratings challenge on its hands.
Per preliminary Nielsen data, last night’s Rock Center averaged 3.51 million viewers and a 1.0 rating among adults 18-49 in the 10 p.m. time slot, making it the least-watched program of the evening on a Big Four network. Deliveries fell 15 percent from the premiere (4.14 million viewers), although the rating in the demo was unchanged.
More jarring are comparisons to the former time slot occupant, which was ejected from the lineup  on Oct. 3. In the 18-49 demo, Episode 2 of Rock Center was down 23 percent from The Playboy Club’s 1.3 rating (Sept. 26).
To be fair, Williams hasn’t exactly been the beneficiary of a strong lead-in. Last night’s installment of The Sing-Off averaged 4.39 million viewers and a 1.4 rating from 8 p.m.-10 p.m., and the final hour fell to a listless 3.89 million viewers and a 1.3 rating.
Monday night is a particularly schizo evening for prime-time television, offering everything from crude comedy (CBS’s 2 Broke Girls and Two and a Half Men) to overblown dino drama (Fox’s Terra Nova) to undercooked competition series (The Sing-Off). ABC’s Dancing With the Stars generally outdelivers all comers, although Two and a Half Men is untouchable in the demo.
Rock Center goes head-to-head with a pair of dramas (CBS’s Hawaii Five-O and ABC’s Castle). Also drawing a crowd is ESPN’s Monday Night Football, which tends to peak in the 10 p.m. time slot.
NBC News president Steve Capus has indicated that he will be extremely patient with Rock Center, saying that no one expected the show would be “a smash hit right out of the starting block.” In a conference call last month, Capus said that NBC was not looking at Rock Center as the savior of its Monday night roster.
“We’re not doing this as a ratings play,” Capus said. “We’re not kidding ourselves; we know it’s going to take some time to get established.”
Williams has been more forthcoming still, telling MSNBC host Lawrence O’Donnell that Rock Center isn’t designed to outdraw the night’s entertainment programs. “I know we’re going to get crushed,” Williams said during a late-October appearance on Last Word With Lawrence O’Donnell. “It’s not a ratings thing.”
NBC has made a three-year commitment to the newsmagazine, which is said to be a pet project of NBCUniversal CEO Steve Burke.
Last night’s episode featured an in-studio interview with 30 Rock creator/executive producer/star Tina Fey. Williams joked about his ploy to lure unsuspecting comedy fans to his show: “In naming this Rock Center it was our intention to get the viewers who were looking for Tina, for Alec, for Tracy, to stop by, like what they see, but come to us entirely mistakenly.”
In a nod to her own show’s middling deliveries—Season 5 of 30 Rock averaged 4.32 million viewers and a 2.0 rating—Fey cracked, “That’s not going to help you, I can tell you that right now.”
Shrugging off Williams’ assertion that 30 Rock is “just an insanely successful television show,” Fey informed the host of the near-term plans for her series. “We’re filming Season 6 right now, and we come back on the air in January—you know, if everything’s still here,” Fey joked.
Rock Center is the first startup newsmagazine since 1997, when CBS launched the short-lived Public Eye With Bryant Gumbel. The Peacock bowed Dateline NBC in 1992, while ABC’s 20/20 has been on the air since 1978. The gold standard: CBS’s 60 Minutes, which first began broadcasting in 1968.