The fall television season is barely a week old but all four major broadcast networks already have something to celebrate.
"Everybody has got a potential hit on their hands," said Kelly Kahl, a CBS senior executive vice president. "It was a good week for network TV."
And the numbers look even better when delayed viewing, from people who record shows to watch later, are factored in.
Among the shows that opened big are the CBS comedy "The Crazy Ones" starring Robin Williams; NBC's drama "The Blacklist," about a traitor who starts working with the FBI; ABC's "Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.," an offshoot of the highly successful "Avengers" feature film; and Fox's "Sleepy Hollow, a quirky modern-day version of Washington Irving's tale of Ichabod Crane.
At a time when Netflix, HBO, AMC and FX are the critical darlings, and broadcast television is often seen as formulaic and staid, the fall season's first-week numbers indicate that the networks can still reach the masses.
"This is a cautiously encouraging sign," Cowen & Co. analyst Doug Creutz said.
To be sure, the majority of new shows fail and one week does not a hit make. Already, one of the most-anticipated series — NBC's "The Michael J. Fox Show" — opened with disappointing ratings.
The comedy, which incorporates Fox's real-life struggles with Parkinson's disease into its plot, averaged just 7.5 million viewers in its debut last Thursday. Jeff Bader, NBC's president of program planning thought "The Michael J. Fox Show" would do better but acknowledged that it wasn't helped by having the low-rated "Parks and Recreation" as a lead-in.
"We hoped it would be enough of a self-starter to get sampled," Bader said.
While "The Michael J. Fox Show" got little help from NBC, "The Crazy Ones" owes some of its big numbers to having a special one-hour block of the smash comedy "The Big Bang Theory" as a lead-in.
"At the end of the day lead-ins still matter a heck of a lot," CBS' Kahl said.
This week, "The Crazy Ones" will have to stand on its own as another new CBS comedy, "The Millers" starring Will Arnett, will be debuting just before it.
NBC wasn't the only network with a sitcom that didn't deliver enough laughs. Fox's "Dads," a politically incorrect comedy about two fathers moving in with their adult sons, from "Family Guy" creator Seth MacFarlane, also posted disappointing numbers in its first two airings.
Among the broadcast networks, NBC has the most to brag about. It is up 15% in number of viewers — and 18% in the coveted adult 18-49 audience — compared with the first week of the 2012-13 season. The other broadcast networks are all down in viewers and in the 18-49 demographic, except for ABC, which is up 1% in the demographic.
The early hits and misses are not the only topic of conversation in the executive suites at the broadcast networks. More viewers are continuing to rely on digital videorecorders and video-on-demand versus watching live television.
CBS' Kahl said DVR playback — viewers recording shows and watching them later — is up 16% compared with a year ago.
For example, "Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D." added 3.7 million viewers in the three days after its Tuesday debut, an increase of 30%, when VOD and DVR viewers were included. "Blacklist" added 4.4 million over three days, for a lift of 35%. Fox's "Sleepy Hollow" also grew by 35% to 13.6 million.
"Live numbers are not the be-all and end-all," said Dan Harrison, Fox's executive vice president of strategic program planning. "I think in the future of television, you're going to see a show with a 100% lift."
The DVR effect may help save series that might otherwise get yanked from prime time after its first couple of episodes. The increase in delayed viewing means the networks can't just look at early Nielsen numbers to decide a show's fate.
"We have to be patient," said Andy Kubitz, ABC's executive vice president of scheduling and planning. "We need to let people catch up."
Kubitz is even remaining optimistic about "Lucky Seven," the network's new drama about a group of lottery winners, which drew only 4.43 million viewers in its debut.
"I'm not ready to call it a failure," he said.
Amid the onslaught of new programming, several returning shows also displayed surprising strength.
NBC brought the original lineup of celebrity judges back together to great effect for this season of "The Voice," the singing competition. The reality show's total viewership Monday and Tuesday increased by double digits over its first two episodes last year.
CBS still has a big hit in "The Big Bang Theory," now in its seventh season, after Jim Parsons just won a best-actor Emmy. The Thursday night comedy kicked off with its most-watched episode ever, bringing in more than 20 million viewers.
Several of ABC's returning shows fell year-over-year, including "Dancing With the Stars," Emmy winner "Modern Family" and "Grey's Anatomy."Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun