Television viewers aren't rushing back to their favorites with new season

Tuesday, September 30th 2003, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

NEW YORK (AP) _ 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, 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, a television 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 new shows that are intriguing them.''

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.

ABC's viewership was up 8 percent over last year, according to preliminary Nielsen Media Research figures.

Partly that was due to the curiosity factor following John Ritter's death that brought a big audience to ``8 Simple Rules for Dating My Teenage Daughter'' last week. And partly it was because ABC did so poorly last year it was hard to get much worse, analysts say.

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.

Sternberg said competition from cable networks is hurting the networks more than ever before. Over just the past two years, the number of channels available in an average home has jumped by more than two dozen to more than 100, he said.

``That is finally starting to have an impact where it hadn't over the past few years,'' he said.

Somewhat surprisingly, FX's critically praised series, ``Nip/Tuck,'' scored its best ratings ever last Tuesday when competing against the season premieres of three broadcast dramas.