MINNEAPOLIS (AdAge.com) -- Evolution may be a dynamic debate within certain school boards (and between some presidential candidates and the ladies on "The View"), but survival of the fittest fittingly describes the process during the second week of the fall TV season. Several shows had season or series starts during the past two weeks, including four new entries this week. Combined with the top-10-rated shows, they represented TV's version of natural selection.
Most notable was a show that literally evokes evolution, ABC's much-maligned "Cavemen." In an odd case of art imitating life, just as the cavemen of the Geico commercial are underestimated on how evolved they are, ABC's "Cavemen" was similarly scoffed at, with critics claiming it extinct on arrival. But perhaps proving that there is no such thing as bad publicity in premiere month, the retooled pilot delivered a 3.1/10 rating and share in the ad-centric adult 18-49 demographic, just below time slot leader "NCIS" on CBS. Whether viewers return remains to be seen, but a relatively weak time period could mean that as far surviving for at least a few more weeks, even a "Cavemen" could do it (to borrow Geico's punch line). "Carpoolers," ABC's companion comedy, held the "Cavemen" lead-in with a premiere delivery of 3.2/9.
A 'Bionic' devolution
The evolution of "Cavemen" contrasted with the devolution of several series, particularly NBC's "Bionic Woman." After a surprise success last week against the ABC "Grey's Anatomy" spin-off "Private Practice" (17th with 4.1/11), "Bionic" appeared all too human, falling 30% to 23rd place with a 3.7/10. But despite its win, even "Private Practice" lost over 40% of viewers compared with the time period last year, when "Lost" held the hour.
"Private Practice" certainly benefited from strong sampling of ABC's "Pushing Daisies," which was thrown as many critical bouquets as "Cavemen" fielded brickbats. The premiere missed the top 10 with a 19th place 4.0/12, but handily won its time slot and gives the network hope of evolving Wednesday into a winner, which would help promote prime-time on Thursday, TV's most lucrative night.
Indeed, the payoff at least works for "Grey's Anatomy," the week's top-rated show, which delivered a 7.4/18 according to last night's Nielsen "Fast Affiliate Ratings." But despite its star status, it too has regressed, down 16% from the equivalent night last year. As has time slot rival "CS," on CBS, which was fourth with a 6.3/16 but off 9% from last year.
Part of the reason for "Grey's" and "CSI's" contraction may be that the life cycle for shows is getting shorter, as cultural clutter makes even relatively new shows age more quickly. But part of it could also be because of a guy who seems to have just emerged from the swamp, Michael Scott (Steve Carell) of NBC's "The Office" (11th with a 4.5/11, up 5% from its premiere and one of the few shows to grow from last week).
A rare network species
Other states of evolution were prominent in this week's top 10: "Heroes," NBC's hit about everyday people evolving beyond their normal human limitations, was No. 7 with a 4.8/11. And the anti-hero doctor of Fox's "House" has developed into the rarest of network species: a dependable, bona fide hit, as the show is routinely in the top 10, this time third with a 6.4/16.
The seemingly highly evolved status of sophisticated (melo)dramas "Desperate Housewives" (second with a 6.7/16) and "Brothers and Sisters" (tied for ninth with a 4.6/12) on ABC, was belied by both audience contraction ("Desperate" was down 17% from this week last year, with "Brothers" down 11%) and content retraction as cultural controversies developed and enveloped the shows. Sally Field -- the "Brothers and Sisters" mother -- evoked maternal instincts in relation to the war in Iraq during her profane Emmy Award acceptance speech. And ABC and the creators of "Desperate Housewives" apologized to the Philippines after disparaging doctors from the island nation in this year's premiere.
Two series indicative of how the medium itself has rapidly adapted in a fragmenting, fractured media landscape also made the top 10, as the commercial combination of low costs and high ratings have worked for ABC's "Dancing with the Stars" (sixth, 4.8/12) and "Extreme Makeover: Home Edition" (tied for ninth with a 4.6/12).
CW's growing pains
The only other program that had its premiere this week was the CW's "Aliens in America," a peek into the peer-pressured environment of high school (the anti-Galapagos, as a place that never seems to evolve). The .08/2 demo delivery was actually lower than lead-in "Everybody Hates Chris" (.09/3), frustrating the new network's efforts to move up the food chain in its sophomore season.
Finally, no discussion involving cavemen and bionics (let alone fall TV's top 10) would be complete without the NFL. NBC's "Sunday Night Football" was fifth with a 6.1/16 joining CBS's "NFL Post Game" (4.6/15, good for eighth) as proof that, indeed, the fittest do survive (if not thrive) on network TV.
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NOTE: A share is a percentage of TV households that have their TV sets on at a given time. A rating is a percentage of all TV households, whether or not their sets are turned on. For example, a 1.0 rating is 1% of the total U.S. households with a TV. In order to report ratings on a timely basis, all the ratings listed here reflect a Nielsen Live number. (Many ad deals have been negotiated on the basis of a commercial minute, live-plus-3 viewing basis.)
John Rash is senior VP-director of broadcast negotiations for Campbell Mithun, Minneapolis. For daily rating updates, see rashreport.com.