NBC Scores Big With Early Tuesday Debuts

Whoopi, Happy Family give net a time-slot boost

The series premieres of two NBC comedies, Whoopi and Happy Family logged big numbers, but the key is whether the Tuesday-night shows will hold up over the long run.

Whoopi, named for star Whoopi Goldberg, won its Tuesday 8-8:30 p.m. ET time slot by 39% among adults 18-49. With a 4.9 rating/16 share in the demo, the show delivered the network's best number for regular programming in the time period since Oct. 24, 2000. Whoopi also won the slot by 66% in households and 71% in total viewers, with 15.1 million watchers.

NBC was happy enough with Whoopi's first outing that it scheduled another airing last Thursday at 9:30 p.m., hoping to take advantage of Will & Grace's large lead-in to gain even more sampling.

Happy Family built on Whoopi's premiere by 4%, scoring a 5.1/15 in adults 18-49. The show, starring television stalwarts Christine Baranski and John Larroquette, dropped off a bit in total viewers, with 14.7 million people sticking around. It also tallied NBC's highest 18-49 rating for regular programming in that time period since March 5, 2002, and its best overall total-viewer average since Feb. 26, 2002.

While NBC appeared happy with and even a little surprised by the two shows' early performance, the network wants to keep expectations down. "These numbers are way beyond what these shows will do over the long haul given the competition in the time period," said spokesman Thomas Bierbaum. "If we maintain 60% of these numbers, that would be very good."

"If" is the operative word: Last season, the now-canceled In-Laws premiered to similar numbers. The difference, Bierbaum says, is that In-Laws kicked off with a double-run leading into the highly rated season premiere of Frasier. This season, Whoopi and Happy Family led into a Frasier repeat that dropped off from the two premieres.

Still, NBC's scheduling of the two shows reveals something about the network's confidence in them.

"The reason a [top-four network] schedules something two weeks before the season starts is that you don't think it's a strong show and you want to get as much viewing for it as possible," says Steve Sternberg, director of audience analysis at Interpublic Group's Magna Global USA.

Whoopi and Happy Family have been critically panned, and industry watchers wonder whether their ratings will hold up. Especially in late October when Fox plans original episodes of the second go-round of Joe Millionaire on Tuesdays at 8 p.m., a potential time-period killer.

Last Wednesday, UPN debuted its only new drama, Jake 2.0, which opened to solid ratings behind the third-season premiere of Enterprise. Jake maintained 90% of Enterprise's lead-in and attracted the network's largest audience in the time period since October 2002.

Last Thursday, UPN premiered sitcom The Mullets, and The WB opened Steve Harvey's Big Time and Run of the House. On Friday, The WB gave returning show Reba a one-hour premiere and kicked off All About the Andersons.

The official TV season doesn't start until Sept. 22, but UPN hopes to jump out early with premieres The Opposite Sex today at 8:30 p.m. and All of Us Tuesday at 8:30 p.m. The network follows that opening with Rock Me Baby at 9 p.m.

ABC premieres Threat Matrix, about a task force of terrorism fighters, this Thursday at 8 p.m. That time slot promises to be impossibly tough against the last season of NBC's Friends and CBS's Survivor: Pearl Islands, which also premieres this week. Fox launches its Friday-night lineup Sept. 19, with new sitcom Luis.