Fall Season Fails to Capture Viewers So Far

"The Mentalist" is one of the few with a fanbase ... "Kath & Kim," not so much.

Oct. 23, 2008 — -- The early scorecard is in.

Four weeks into the TV season, just two new shows on the major networks can be considered hits: CBS' "The Mentalist," averaging 16.2 million viewers, and Fox's "Fringe," which ranks first among young-adult viewers with 10.8 million.

"90210" is working among CW's new narrow-target audience of young women. But the list pretty much ends there. ABC game show "Opportunity Knocks" and Fox sitcom "Do Not Disturb" already are canceled, and CW's entire outsourced Sunday schedule set historic lows.

NBC has received disappointing results for "My Own Worst Enemy," "Kath & Kim" and "Crusoe," though it extended modestly rated "Knight Rider" for a full season. ABC's "Life on Mars" plunged 25% for last week's second episode, and like NBC, the network has faced an uphill battle relaunching long-absent dramas from last season.

"Mentalist" and "Fringe," which compete on Tuesdays, follow hits "NCIS" and "House," which provide big boosts.

"I don't think we're seeing a breakout hit the way we saw with 'Lost,' 'Desperate Housewives' and 'Heroes,'" says analyst David Scardino at ad firm RPA. But "virtually everything we're seeing to some degree is affected by the writers' strike. Ten percent of the audience did not come back" last spring. And the strike limited networks to fewer new series.

As in past years, shows that stuck to their network's formulas had an easier time. CBS' quirky "Worst Week" is faring worse than last year's "Rules ofEngagement," and romantic drama "The Ex List" is below last year's "Moonlight."

Both "were certainly more risky going in," says research chief David Poltrack. "They were not as mainstream CBS as the other shows."

Among other freshmen, CBS' "Gary Unmarried" and CW's "Privileged" have stabilized with modest ratings.

Prime-time TV viewing overall is up 2% from last fall, but as viewership continues to splinter, the top broadcast networks are all down. NBC and ABC are suffering the most, and CBS is in the best shape, winning the past three weeks.

But "we've got a new competitor in every hour of prime time," Poltrack says. DVRs, which are in 28% of homes, keep viewers away from new shows as they play favorites. The impact is most severe among younger viewers and on shows that air at 10.

"When we're launching 'Eleventh Hour' and 'Life on Mars' on Thursday nights, people are watching 'CSI' and 'Grey's Anatomy' and 'The Office,'" which air earlier that night. "A lot of people are moving 9 o'clock shows to 10."