Wednesday, October 1, 2003

Fall season starts slowly

Old TV favorites lose viewers, but there are signs of success

By David Bauder
The Associated Press

Television viewers didn't exactly rush to their sets to catch up on old favorites during the first week of the new season.

The audience for NBC's Friends season premiere was down by 28 percent from last year's season opener. For CBS' CSI: Miami, it was down 25 percent. Frasier, down 31 percent. NYPD Blue, down 22 percent. ER, down 13 percent.

Even the nearly 27 million people who tuned into television's most popular show, CSI: Crime Scene Investigation, represented a drop of 12 percent from last year's premiere, according to Nielsen Media Research.

Despite that, the broadcast networks rallied over the weekend to salvage an opening week that had begun ominously.

Overall, viewership for ABC, CBS, NBC and Fox was down 3 percent from opening week last year, and down 7 percent among the prized 18-to-49-year-old demographic. Much of the decline can be tied to Fox, which has held off most of its premieres until after baseball season.

Making judgments after one week of viewing is dangerous, but if the trend for some of the most popular shows continues, it would be a cause for concern with the networks, said Steve Sternberg, an analyst for the ad firm Magna Global.

"These shows are aging," said Marc Berman, an analyst for Media Week Online. "People are getting tired of them. And they're not finding (intriguing) new shows...."

NBC entertainment president Jeff Zucker said he was "thrilled" by the week since his network will win among viewers aged 18-to-49 - the only demographic it cares about - by its biggest margin in four years.

"All of our returning shows had fantastic weeks," Zucker said. The West Wing, for example, had a bigger audience last week than at any point last season.

There are mitigating circumstances for some of the declines. Friends had a compelling cliffhanger going into last season - Joey's proposal to Rachel - and nothing as dramatic this season.

CSI: Miami had the curiosity factor of a series premiere last year. NYPD Blue is facing tougher competition in its Tuesday time slot from Law & Order: SVU and Judging Amy; and Frasier must convince fans it can make a creative comeback from an off year.

But there were bright spots: Hope & Faith, the new sitcom starring Kelly Ripa and Faith Ford, had a strong start as viewers seemed to welcome the return of ABC's family-oriented Friday night lineup.

CBS has a potential hit with the Friday spiritual drama, Joan of Arcadia, and also did well with another forensics drama on Sunday, Cold Case.

NBC's Whoopi has faded after a strong preseason start. NBC's Coupling, CBS' The Brotherhood of Poland, N.H. and ABC's Threat Matrix are new series that could be in trouble.

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