Rookie Hits and Misses Fall Into Place for Affiliates

NBC’s prime is still suspect, but at least the tale is not 'Grimm'
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Just as it does for some football teams, TV’s fall season starts with promise, though each successive week—for certain networks and shows— reveals increasingly disheartening numbers. NBC affiliates were hopeful that a change in network ownership, and a vow to return the Peacock to its glory days would boost primetime ratings—not to mention the stations’ lucrative late news programs that follow. While the early returns don’t thus far show breakout hits, general managers at NBC stations around the country say the primetime schedule at least looks stable, with a few rookies such as Whitney offering potential to shine.

“The stability is there—we’re not seeing a total lost season,” says Kym Grinnage, vice president and general manager at WWBT Richmond. “We won’t have radical success, but NBC said it would be more of a gradual move to make it better. I think that’s what we’re seeing.”

While every network, and their affiliated stations, has major anticipations for fall, perhaps no affiliate bodies hold higher hopes than NBC, with entertainment chief Bob Greenblatt calling the creative shots as the network tries to fight its way out of an interminable primetime slump, and Fox, with big-swing debutantes such as The X Factor and Terra Nova trying to do in autumn what American Idol does in the winter.

Things are quieter with CBS affiliates, which enjoy a glut of returning ratingsgrabbers in primetime. Bob Totsch, vice president and general manager at KCTV Kansas City, says it’s been an “extraordinary” start to the season, with 2 Broke Girls among the rookie standouts. Totsch says he suspects audience share is up 5-7% over the same period last fall, with the likes of Two and a Half Men and The Mentalist doing their usual heavy lifting. “Some of the other stations have to wait and see what happens with their new shows,” he says. “We’re looking pretty solid.”

Some ABC affiliates seem pleased too, as the likes of Revenge and Suburgatory ease into the new schedule. The affiliates have pushed the network to strengthen the hour leading into their late news, and early returns suggest ABC has listened. “The biggest and best news has been 9-10 p.m. Central,” says Stuart Kellogg, president and general manager of WAPT Jackson (Miss.). “I can’t remember that time being stronger across the board. It seems like ABC has built pieces that fit well.”

Fox affiliates do not seem worried about the underwhelming national ratings that marked The X Factor’s premiere, saying local numbers were robust. They were also tickled to see comedy New Girl put up a strong early performance. “I’m very pleased with the buzz I’m hearing in the community,” says Tim Black, general manager at WEVV Evansville (Ind.), which runs the new “Fox44” on its multicast channel.

The Fox affiliate body has endured exceptionally difficult battles with the network over affiliation fees, which raises fall expectations even more. So far, so good, say multiple affiliates.

“It’s a significantly improved fall schedule over last year, top to bottom,” says Kelvin Mize, vice president and general manager at WTNZ Knoxville (Tenn.), where New Girl opened to a “very good” 8 household rating. “The new primetime is a good news lead-in.”

Mize adds that more baseball postseason games will air outside of primetime this month on Fox, giving the young shows a better chance to build continuity.

The optimism is more muted in the NBC family, where just a year ago, hopes were high for the likes of The Event and Chase. While Whitney and Up All Night got full-season orders last week, dramas such as Prime Suspect and The Playboy Club—the latter earning the ignominious distinction of being the fall’s first casualty—have had a tougher time. NBC affiliates say all the networks have upped their fall games considerably, filling the schedule with unenviable slots for new shows.

“Competition is pretty doggone tough,” says Nick Ulmer, vice president and general manager at WFIE Evansville. “I’ve been doing this for 30-something years, and it’s a real tight four-way race. It didn’t used to be that way.”

Numerous NBC affiliates around the country are clinging to shrinking leads in late news, which typically represents 20%-25% of their news revenue, amidst NBC’s perennial primetime woes. Affiliates applaud NBC for getting back into the comedy business through the likes of Whitney and Up All Night, both of which opened to respectable 6 household ratings/8 shares on WWBT Richmond. Such a move shows that Comcast– NBCUniversal is intent, they say, on returning NBC to the Must-See TV days of yore. “They’d gotten so far away from that with dramas and reality,” says Dale Woods, vice president and general manager of WHO Des Moines. “This is a great place to start.”

While the NBC rookies may not be showing breakout status, affiliates say other primetime players are more than pulling their weight—none more so than Sunday Night Football, which they describe as everything from “a monster” to “absolutely phenomenal.” “Thank God for Sunday Night Football,” says Grinnage.

NBC affiliate execs also single out summer hit America’s Got Talent and warhorse Law & Order: SVU, and offer some optimism for twisted fairy tale Grimm, which will premiere on Oct. 28. Then there’s the Super Bowl early in 2012, along with a new installment of The Voice, and the Olympic Games in London next summer.

NBC’s struggles to mint primetime hits may persist. But all things considered, affiliates say it’s still a very good network to partner with. “I’m confident that NBC is going in the right direction,” says Ulmer. “I see the light at the end of the tunnel, coming out of a dismal five or six years.”

E-mail comments to mmalone@nbmedia.com and follow him on Twitter: @StationBiz

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