NEW YORK – If it were a television series, it would be called “Defying the Odds.”
Five weeks into a new TV season, three of the four top broadcast networks have bigger prime-time audiences than they had in 2008. With cable networks flexing their muscles, digital video recorders becoming more popular and computer games cutting into free time, that’s a small miracle.
No new shows burst onto the air as instant hits. But there weren’t any embarrassing flameouts, either.
“There are a number of new shows that are very promising,” said Marc Berman, an analyst for Media Week and publisher of “The Programming Insider.” “There are seven or eight that could be around next year.”
CBS is television’s most popular network and, if anything, has strengthened its position. Fox is used to struggling until “American Idol” returns, but the buzzworthy “Glee” gives executives hope for a new musical franchise. While struggling NBC has seen few promising signs, its freefall appears over.
ABC is the only network down from last year, due primarily to audiences slipping away from established favorites like “Desperate Housewives,” “Dancing With the Stars” and “Brothers & Sisters.”
Unlike past years, “it doesn’t feel like the business is totally collapsing,” said Preston Beckman, Fox’s scheduling chief. The veteran executive said it looked like networks had the best crop of newcomers that it’s had in years.
CBS has established Tuesday as the most popular night of television, much like NBC did with its comedies and the drama “ER” in the 1990s.
“NCIS” is TV’s top-ranked show this fall, by a healthy margin. Its viewership is up 22 percent over last fall, according to the Nielsen Co., and it was growing then, too. The spinoff “NCIS: Los Angeles” and Julianna Margulies’ new drama, “The Good Wife,” have both succeeded in the time slots following the blockbuster.
“They’ve never been able to put stuff behind (‘NCIS’) that holds the audience,” said Steve Sternberg, a television analyst formerly with Magna Global. “Now they have.”
Moving the Monday night comedy “The Big Bang Theory” from an earlier time slot to 9:30 p.m. EDT has also paid off for CBS. The show is up 48 percent in viewers from a year ago, Nielsen said.
The medical drama “Three Rivers” isn’t expected to last too long on CBS. With “ER” off the air, efforts to establish a new medical drama have largely failed. NBC’s nurse-centric “Mercy” has a slight edge over its action-oriented “Trauma.”
Maybe folks just prefer the established doctors: Ratings are up for “House” on Fox.
NBC is still holding its breath on its boldest experiment, stripping the 10 p.m. hour with a Jay Leno comedy show. The show is often walking the line of a rating that will determine success or failure, and some local stations are concerned that Leno is hurting the ratings for their 11 p.m. news shows.
“`The Jay Leno’ show is a huge flop,” Berman said. “I don’t care what they say. It’s not working.”
Not so fast, NBC says. It wants to judge the show over the long haul, and its executives expect Leno will do better competitively when he’s up against reruns rather than new shows during the first few weeks of the season.
“NBC should be reasonably happy with it,” Sternberg said. “You can’t say Leno is a flop at this point — even though a lot of people would like to.”
NBC canceled the drama “Southland” before it even aired its second season debut this fall, drawing the wrath of those in Hollywood’s creative community who charged that the once-premium network wants to do things on the cheap. Although NBC denies this, it’s clearly in a leadership transition and waiting for signs of recovery.
Propping up the network this fall are a strong Sunday night football lineup and “The Biggest Loser,” whose audience is up 23 percent.
Fox executives are happy with the performance of “Glee” and the new animated “The Cleveland Show.” The latter has fit smoothly into the network’s Sunday animated schedule and already has an order for two seasons. With some strong returning series, Fox moved into first place this week in the 18-to-49-year-old demographic it most cares about.
That’s a very good sign for the network, Beckman noted, because Fox is often way behind in the fall until “American Idol” starts again.
ABC took a gamble with a new comedy night on Wednesdays, and “Modern Family” has already established itself as a keeper. The network has ordered a full season’s worth of shows for three of its four Wednesday comedies, with Kelsey Grammer’s “Hank” the odd one out. In television, that’s a strong batting average.
The network also seems to have a winner with the sci fi drama “Flash Forward” on Thursdays. It is among the most popular programs taped on digital video recorders or watched by viewers online — strong signs that it has an audience willing to go out of its way to keep up with the drama.
That makes up for “Eastwick,” one of the year’s most prominent losers. The series about women with supernatural powers tracks back to the John Updike novel “The Witches of Eastwick” and its 1987 film adaptation.
“I didn’t really understand why they would remake a movie that was 22 years old,” Berman said.