It remains to be seen if "Fringe" -- the best-reviewed show of the new season -- can also be the highest-rated. Other shows from creator J.J. Abrams -- such as ABC's "Lost" -- have lost viewers as time transpired and plots thickened. Abrams has reportedly recognized the reality of time-compressed lives, so plans on making "Fringe" easier to follow.
'Success' is relative
The premiere performance for "Fringe," however successful, shows how much network TV has changed, even during the meteoric career of J.J. Abrams. "Lost," for instance, debuted just four years ago, but was 112% higher-rated with a 6.8/20. Three years earlier, ABC and Abrams premiered "Alias," with Jennifer Garner channeling an action hero and the German film "Run, Lola, Run." The pilot sprinted to a 6.2/14, near double the debut of "Fringe."
And even Abrams' misses have hit higher ratings in their program premieres: ABC's "What About Brian" and "Six Degrees" both bowed with a 5.4/14, 68% higher than "Fringe."
Indeed, to illustrate how expectations of success have shifted, the only Abrams program premiere "Fringe" beat was "Felicity," which debuted a decade ago on the WB to a 2.8/8, a ratings performance that would be considered breakthrough for the CW.
But by today's standard (or at least last night's), "Fringe" was an unqualified success, both quantitatively and especially culturally. And "Fringe" is reflective of a TV tonality that would have once been considered on the outskirts, but now seems widespread.
Absurdity and mystery
ABC's "Wipeout," for instance, the absurd obstacle-course Japanese game show, delivered a 3.0/8 for a 9 p.m. ET episode, winning the second half-hour. An 8 p.m. installment was second in the timeslot, delivering a 2.9/8. (This was followed by "Primetime: Medical Mysteries," which won the 10 p.m. ratings race with a 2.2/6.)
Just behind at 8 p.m. was CBS's "Big Brother," an inverse of the Orwellian nightmare, in which Big Brother is not watching you, but 2.6/7 were watching "Big Brother," an inane game hosted by a CBS news personality. This led into "Fashion Rocks," a marriage of music and models that engaged 1.9/5, which was up 73% compared to last year's Friday-night special. For the night, CBS was third with a 2.2/6.
NBC's (third, 2.4/6) two-hour "America's Got Talent" is less daring, given that it's a 21st-century "Ted Mack Amateur Hour." What's special is its place on the schedule -- let alone its success -- as the retro program delivered a competitive 2.6/7.
And the CW is having its own retro moment -- or what could be seen as a postmodern one -- as original cast members return to star in the new version of the 1990s hit "Beverly Hills, 90210." The freshman series is now called "90210," but despite a breakout premiere last week, a third of the audience graduated to other options, as "90210" fell to a 1.7/5. Lead-out "Privileged" (doesn't that describe 90210, too?) was 29% lower, posting a 1.2/3. Overall, the CW finished fifth with a 1.5/4.
As for Tuesday's most traditional TV show? That would have been NBC's "Law & Order: SVU," which aired a rerun and locked up a 1.9/5. But even this straight narrative cop caper is about deviance from the norm, and was originally titled "Law & Order's Sex Crimes" until NBC wisely made the title -- if not the program -- more palatable for audiences and advertisers.
WHAT TO WATCH:
Wednesday: Think Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin is taking Washington by storm? See the original "everyman" among congressmen in "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington," one of the films in the "American Politics in the Movies" series running every Wednesday in September on TCM.
Thursday: If the ridiculous race for the Oval Office has you down, move to the sublime "Office" on NBC, which airs reruns at 9, 9:30 and 10:30 p.m. ET.
WHAT TO WATCH FOR:
Fox has been sly by competing on Thursday night not with award-winning sitcoms or dramas, but escapist reality contests. It tries to raid the ratings house again with the timeslot premieres of "Hole in the Wall" and "Kitchen Nightmares."
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NOTE: All ratings based on adults 18-49. A share is a percentage of adults 18-49 who have their TV sets on at a given time. A rating is a percentage of all adults 18-49, whether or not their sets are turned on. For example, a 1.0 rating is 1% of the total U.S. adults 18-49 population with TVs. Ratings quoted in this column are based on live-plus-same-day unless otherwise noted. (Many ad deals have been negotiated on the basis of commercial-minute, live-plus-three-days viewing.)
John Rash is senior VP-director of media analysis for Campbell Mithun, Minneapolis. For more, see rashreport.com.