"Everyone understandably focuses on new programming at the start of the season, but a network's returning-series performance is actually more important to its success," Steve Sternberg, Magna's executive VP-audience analysis, wrote in a report released today.
Best start: CBS
In his estimation, CBS "has certainly had the best start when it comes to its returning series." Mr. Sternberg said "Criminal Minds," "CSI: Miami," "NCIS," "How I Met Your Mother, "Two and a Half Men" and "48 Hours Mystery" all have "started out better than last season." Fox also is enjoying success, thanks to animated comedies "The Simpsons," "Family Guy" and "American Dad," all of which "are outpacing last year, as is 'Bones.'"
CW's "Gossip Girl" is "up significantly over last year at this time," he wrote, while "Supernatural" is "up slightly," and "America's Next Top Model" and "Smallville" are "down a bit."
ABC and NBC are not running alongside those three networks, said Mr. Sternberg, "as virtually all their non-football series are down from a year ago."
Biggest declines: ABC
ABC is seeing its biggest declines from returning series whose first year was cut short by last season's writers strike: "Dirty Sexy Money," "Private Practice" and "Pushing Daisies." "Ugly Betty" was "down sharply in its premiere," he wrote, while "Grey's Anatomy," "Dancing With the Stars," "Desperate Housewives" and "Brothers & Sisters" didn't fall off as much.
NBC is also showing signs of strain, with "Heroes," "Law & Order: SVU," "ER" and "My Name Is Earl" all "down by more than 15% among adults 18 to 49." "Only 'The Office' and 'Biggest Loser' are holding their own," Mr. Sternberg said.
Among new series, CBS's "The Mentalist" and Fox's "Fringe" are standing out. "Mentalist" has been able to sustain its strong performance over two episodes, while "Fringe" is drawing solid ratings and running fewer ads in an experiment that so far is resulting in greater audience retention during commercial breaks, according to Magna research. The average national ad break in "Fringe" is just one minute, 18 seconds, while ad breaks in other dramas, which often include local ads, average three minutes, 16 seconds. (Fox seems to be running local commercials during "Fringe" in separate breaks.)