NEW YORK (CNN/Money) – It's only one week into the new fall television season but a few things are already clear.
Viewers still want to get "Lost." Everybody actually loves Chris. And maybe, just maybe, the nation has finally had enough about the exploits of a certain domestic diva and real-estate mogul.
And if so, that's bad news for NBC.
"The Apprentice: Martha Stewart," NBC's much-hyped new version of the popular reality show launched with Donald Trump, bowed to lackluster ratings last Wednesday, pulling in an average of just 7.1 million viewers, according to Nielsen Media Research.
More than twice as many people watched a season-one recap special of ABC's Emmy winner "Lost" during the same time slot.
"NBC has to be a bit disappointed with numbers for Martha Stewart. They probably hoped it would do a bit better," said Bill Carroll, vice president with Katz Television Group, a programming consulting firm.
No strut for the Peacock Network
NBC's rough Wednesday didn't end with Martha either. The second season premiere of "Lost" averaged 23.5 million viewers, blowing away the premiere of NBC's Pentagon drama "E-Ring." What's more, NBC's stalwart "Law and Order" lost a head-to-head battle with ABC's new alien-themed show, "Invasion," during the Wednesday 10 p.m. EST slot.
NBC also suffered a significant setback on Thursday, the night that it used to dominate thanks to sitcoms like "The Cosby Show", "Cheers", "Seinfeld" and "Friends."
The one-hour premiere of "Friends" spin-off "Joey" averaged just 7.8 million viewers, narrowly beating out the debut of "Everybody Hates Chris," a critics' favorite on UPN about comedian Chris Rock's life as a teen growing up in Brooklyn. And according to Nielsen, "Chris" actually beat the first half-hour of "Joey."
The rest of NBC's Thursday lineup didn't fare much better. The fourth-season premiere of the Donald Trump version of "The Apprentice" got crushed by the return of "CSI."
And NBC's "E.R." lost out to a special debut of CBS's new show "Criminal Minds," which will be moving to Wednesday beginning this week opposite "Lost." CBS's "Without a Trace" returns this week in its usual slot against "E.R."
Analysts aren't optimistic for improvement in NBC's Thursday ratings. They worry that NBC may have made too big of a bet on 'The Apprentice' franchise.
"NBC used to own Thursday but there's way too much competition now," said Deanna Myers, senior analyst with Kagan Research, which focuses on the media industry. It seems like viewers are tired of 'The Apprentice.' It gets a little old."
The tough Wednesday and Thursday showings for NBC could make it difficult for the General Electric (Research)-owned network to avoid a second consecutive fourth-place showing in the ratings battle.
And that could further hurt advertising sales heading into next year. NBC took in only $1.9 billion to $2 billion in advertising commitments for this season during this spring's "upfront" ad buying period, down from $2.9 billion a year ago.
"For those programs that did not start well, they face an uphill struggle. One week does not make a season but networks can't wait weeks to find audiences," said John Rash, senior vice president and director of broadcast negotiations with Campbell Mithun, a Minneapolis-based ad agency owned by Interpublic Group (Research).
Fortunately for NBC, however, there was one bright spot. It could have a hit on its hand with the quirky sitcom "My Name is Earl". It launched last Tuesday, with an average of 15.2 million viewers.
"The most encouraging development for NBC is the development of a comedy that could get viewers to take a new look at the network and 'My Name is Earl' is the type of program that has sustainability," Rash said.
ABC and CBS battle for #1...but don't count out Fox
But with NBC, save for "Earl" still struggling, television experts said ABC and CBS should be able to gain more leverage with advertisers, which should be good news for their parent companies Walt Disney (Research) and Viacom (Research).
CBS also had a strong showing with the season premiere of "Survivor" last Thursday and "NCIS" on Tuesday. And "CSI: Miami" did extremely well last Monday despite going up against the end of "Monday Night Football" on ABC.
The successful debut of "Chris" on UPN could lead to a further boost in ad revenue for Viacom, which owns UPN as well as CBS. In addition to "Chris," last Wednesday's two-hour season premiere of reality show "America's Top Model" pulled in an average of 4.8 million viewers, respectable numbers considering that it went up against ABC's "Lost" juggernaut.
"UPN has had that 'weblet' network status for so long. But they are getting a lot more buzz. They are finally getting more water-cooler shows," said Myers.
Of course, it's probably too soon to tell who will win the overall ratings crown this year. But so far, things look good for ABC, said Tom Weeks, entertainment director with Starcom, a Chicago-based media buying firm owned by ad agency Publicis Groupe (Research). Weeks said that according to preliminary figures from Nielsen, ABC's other big hits premiered on Sunday to solid numbers: 28.2 million viewers for "Desperate Housewives" and 19.5 million for "Grey's Anatomy."
"ABC seems to be gaining even more momentum. They were the darling in 2004 and are looking super strong coming out of the gate," said Weeks.
And then there's Fox, which is off to a mixed start. New shows such as "Reunion" and "Kitchen Confidential" have not fared too well so far and the season premieres of returning shows "Arrested Development" and "The O.C." put up disappointing ratings, analysts said. Fox has also lowered the ax on a new show already, canceling "Head Cases" last week. That was the first casualty of the season.
Still, Fox's second-year medical drama "House" debuted to strong ratings in its first two weeks back. And the News Corp (Research). network is sure to receive another big boost early next year.
"As with last season, it will be a highly competitive year. CBS and ABC are the two probable combatants for the top spot for the first half of the season. But January will bring a new ratings wrinkle with 'American Idol' re-ascending for Fox," Rash said.
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