ABC dances rings around NBC’s new comedy bloc

LOS ANGELES (Reuters) – NBC’s bid to regain a Thursday night ratings foothold with a new two-hour comedy bloc got off to a less-than-dashing start in competition against ABC’s robust return of summer hit “Dancing with the Stars.”

The two-hour launch of ABC’s second-edition celebrity dance contest averaged 17.3 million viewers and ranked as the night’s third most watched broadcast overall, behind CBS powerhouse hits “CSI: Crime Scene Investigation” and “Without a Trace,” Nielsen Media Research said on Friday.

By comparison, NBC’s new lineup of four half-hour comedies — veteran sitcom “Will & Grace,” newcomer “Four Kings” and two transplants from Tuesday night, “My Name is Earl” and “The Office” — averaged 9.2 million viewers combined.

The NBC bloc also trailed CBS and ABC in ratings for viewers aged 18 to 49, the group most prized by advertisers and the audience most networks use to gauge prime-time success.

The struggle for Thursday night supremacy has long been a key battleground in the U.S. prime-time ratings race — a highly lucrative TV night in which advertisers spend lavishly to reach a young, affluent audience. NBC once dominated Thursdays with its “Must-See-TV” lineup but fell on hard times after mega-hit comedy “Friends” ended its 10-year run in 2004.

Individually, only “Earl,” NBC’s hottest new comedy, scored higher 18-49 numbers than “Dancing with the Stars” and proved the most-watched sitcom of the night with 11.2 million viewers total during its half hour.

But “Earl’s” debut on Thursday night lagged behind its own Tuesday night season average by more than 1 million viewers and a tenth of a ratings point in the 18-49 demographic.

An NBC spokesman insisted the network was encouraged by the numbers, realizing that any gains would be modest and seeing Thursday’s make-over as a long-term strategic move to gradually rebuild ratings.


NBC noted that “Earl,” starring Jason Lee as an ex-con trying to burnish his karma, scored a seven-month 18-49 ratings high for the network in the 9 p.m. to 9:30 p.m. Thursday slot and topped NBC’s season average in that time period by 24 percent.

A half-hour later, workplace comedy “The Office” hit season highs in its own Nielsen performance. Buddy comedy “Four Kings” debuted to a so-so 8.8 million viewers overall but built on its 18-49 “lead-in” from “Will & Grace” by 20 percent.

“Earl” and “Office” arguably face stiffer competition in their new berths. But the General Electric Co.-owned network knew the stakes were high in reshuffling its schedule to offer a programing alternative to “CSI” and reality juggernaut “Survivor” on CBS.

ABC, a unit of the Walt Disney Co., upped the ante by launching a second installment of “Dancing with the Stars” opposite NBC’s new comedy quartet. The show’s return audience of 17.3 million topped the debut of the original dancing contest last summer by nearly 4 million viewers and its season average by 500,000.

CBS dominated Thursday with the night’s two most-watched shows, crime dramas “CSI” and “Without a Trace,” drawing 27.3 million and 20.6 million viewers, respectively. Fox, a News Corp. Ltd. unit, trailed in fourth place for the night behind the Big Three networks.


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