Hope for New Season Hits a Speed Bump

Five uninspiring weeks in, CBS leads ratings pack

Five weeks of the 2011-12 TV season have receded in the rearview mirror, and the tires are still wet from the roadkill. Since taking to the road, the Reaper has mowed down five new series, and another three lie just a few miles up ahead, sunning themselves in the breakdown lane.

Whatever enthusiasm greeted the dawn of this year’s 38-week road trip has devolved into a sort of calcified indifference. Of the 24 new series that premiered since mid-September, two are certifiable hits (CBS’ 2 Broke Girls and Fox’s New Girl) and another latecomer, ABC’s Once Upon a Time, seems promising. The rest are the ratings equivalent of truck stop coffee, ranging from unpalatable to merely tolerable.

Very few new series are paying off on their incipient promise. Shows that boast the advantage of a high-profile legacy brand are either flailing (Pan Am, Prime Suspect) or have been snuffed out altogether (The Playboy Club, Charlie’s Angels). Big budget shows like Fox’s Terra Nova aren’t worth the price of admission, and the surefire hit The X Factor is falling well shy of its upfront guarantees.

The upshot of all these unremarkable deliveries is that the prime-time ratings race is extremely tight. Fox leads with a 3.4 rating in the 18-49 demo (up 21 percent versus the same period a year ago), just a nose ahead of CBS (3.3, even). ABC is third with a 2.7 (down 4 percent), and NBC is fourth with a 2.5 (down 14 percent). The Spanish-language network Univision is even with a 1.6 rating, while The CW is down 25 percent to 0.9.

Although advertisers pay very little attention to overall deliveries, there are bragging rights associated with luring the most sets of eyeballs. (If nothing else, greater deliveries provide a broader base for in-house promotion.) As it stands through the first five weeks, CBS is well out in front with an average 12.7 million viewers, followed by Fox (9.64 million), ABC (9.6 million), NBC (7.23 million), Univision (3.69 million), and The CW (2.06 million).

Only six new shows are averaging a 3.5 or higher among the 18-49 set. Tops on the season is 2 Broke Girls, notching a 5.0 in the target demo on CBS. Fox’s New Girl is averaging a 4.5 rating, while The X Factor has earned a 4.0 on Wednesday and Thursday nights. ABC’s Once Upon a Time served up a 4.0 in its first time out (Oct. 23)—the best for any new drama season to date. The Tim Allen sitcom Last Man Standing is putting up a 3.4 rating on ABC, while the Alphabet’s soapy drama Revenge is averaging a 3.2 in the demo.

Having abandoned Playboy Club and the comedy Free Agents, NBC committed to back-nine orders for Whitney and Up All Night. Both are averaging a tepid 2.2 in the demo. Clearly, Sunday Night Football is keeping NBC from disintegrating altogether; the five games that coincided with the first five weeks of the season earned TV’s highest 18-49 rating (7.9).

NBC entertainment president Bob Greenblatt may have been given a lousy hand, but he’s doing his best to attract at least a pair of eights. Despite the fact that the Thursday night cop drama Prime Suspect is averaging a terminal 1.4 rating, Greenblatt hasn’t given up on the rookie, hyping the show during SNF and airing repeats at 10 p.m. from Monday to Thursday of this week.

Greenblatt can afford to be patient; clearly no one at NBCU parent Comcast expects a miraculous turnaround at this early stage in his tenure. He also has The Voice returning in February, with plans to pair the singing competition with one of TV’s most anticipated new dramas in the midseason musical Smash.

CBS this week put in full-season orders for the steady Person of Interest (2.8) and Unforgettable (2.5), and while it has yet to make a final decision on the limping Friday night drama A Gifted Man, the show’s 1.3 rating will make it disappear shortly after November sweeps.

For the most part, CBS hasn’t had to lean on its new series, given the consistency of its veteran lineup of procedurals (NCIS, Criminal Minds) and comedies (Two and a Half Men, How I Met Your Mother, The Big Bang Theory).

ABC enjoys the highest concentration of promising new series, and a back-nine order for Allen’s Last Man should be forthcoming. The network already committed to full-season runs of Revenge (2.7) and Suburgatory (3.2), and the early success of Once Upon a Time takes some of the heat off a fading Pan Am (2.2).

The new stuff aside, ABC has the No. 2 comedy on the dial in Modern Family (5.8), and its hospital drama Grey’s Anatomy continues to put up big numbers among young female viewers. 

While The X Factor and New Girl have helped Fox put together its first blockbuster Q4 in memory, the former program is a mixed blessing. Thus far, the Simon Cowell strip is averaging a 4.0 in the demo, and while that’s a solid rating, it’s well shy of the 6.0 Fox had guaranteed in the upfronts.

Compounding the ratings shortfall is the price of a 30-second spot on X Factor—around $325,000 a pop for Wednesday’s competition show and $285,000 for Thursday’s results show—and the cost of staging and promoting it. Another pricey newcomer is the dino drama Terra Nova. The pilot alone cost some $16 million to produce, and thus far the show is averaging a so-so 2.9 in the demo.

New Girl aside, Fox’s biggest ratings drivers have come courtesy of old hands like The Simpsons, Family Guy, and Glee. The network has also averaged a 4.0 with its World Series coverage and gets big numbers with the overrun of its late NFL game on Sunday. 

A handful of new series have yet to debut, although there hardly seems to be a game-changer in the bunch. NBC takes the wraps off its hybrid fairy-tale/procedural Grimm on Friday, Oct. 28, two days before Fox bows the animated Allen Gregory. On the far side of sweeps, Fox will premiere the venomous comedy I Hate My Teenage Daughter on Friday, Nov. 30.