February 28, 2024

While ‘X Factor’ Lags Forecasts, Sitcoms Shine

An avalanche of promotion — some of it orchestrated by Simon Cowell, the unabashed showman who owns and stars in “The X Factor” — increased the pressure on Fox to come through with a ratings game-changer in television’s premiere week.

As it turned out, “The X Factor” provided a little suspense, performing below most expectations (not Mr. Darnell’s, he said) with 12.5 million viewers on its first night, but restoring faith when its second episode held up well, closely matching the first night’s numbers.

As dominant as “The X Factor” story was, it supplied only one of several plotlines that had television executives buzzing in the first week of the new season. Two main themes emerged: comedy looks resurgent; and reality shows, at least reality competition shows, may be reaching the saturation point.

“It does feel like something is happening in comedy,” said Preston Beckman, the executive vice president for strategic planning at Fox. “And we may be seeing some change in reality. People know how to watch these shows now.” He said some viewers may have learned they can skim reality shows and see all they need “in about three minutes.”

Comedy made a case for renewed popularity with enormous audiences for new and returning shows. None was bigger than the revised version of “Two and a Half Men” on CBS, which rode a wave of interest (or rubbernecking) in the exit of Charlie Sheen to ratings usually seen only for postseason N.F.L. football — more than 28 million viewers. But the ABC comedy “Modern Family,” having already staked a claim to the title of best comedy on television thanks to five Emmy Awards, made the biggest statement of the week, scoring its best ratings, even while going head to head with “The X Factor.” “Modern Family” is now being cited as the possible rebirth of the sitcom genre.

“You can make an argument that ‘Modern Family’ is like ‘The Cosby Show’ from 1984,” said Brad Adgate, the director of research for the ad-buying company Horizon Media. That renowned NBC hit led the sitcom, which had fallen to near irrelevance, to a revival.

Steve Levitan, the co-creator of “Modern Family,” said it was gratifying to be considered a central player in a comedy comeback, especially after seeing show after show “wiped out by these giant event shows.” He said, “It was a little demoralizing for scripted comedy for a while.”

The signs of a comedy revival were apparent on all networks last week. “The Big Bang Theory” on CBS eclipsed the first hour of “The X Factor.” On NBC, “The Office” held up well without its star, Steve Carell.

Several new comedies displayed signs of being hits. “Two Broke Girls” on CBS pulled in almost 20 million viewers, thanks largely to spillover from “Two and a Half Men.” But viewers might have liked what they saw.

Still, the award for the best performance by a new comedy should go to “The New Girl” on Fox. Following a surprisingly depressed number, 8.9 million, for “Glee” (one of several returning shows whose premieres raised eyebrows about their futures), the new comedy starring Zooey Deschanel attracted 10 million viewers, improving the network’s rating to 4.7 among the 18- to 49-year-old audience that advertisers prefer — a better number than either episode of “The X Factor.”

And while NBC did not have much good news for the week, the way a new comedy, “Up All Night,” stood up against overpowering competition was promising. ABC got good news from its holdover comedy “The Middle.”

As Mr. Beckman pointed out, many of the lesser lights among the new and returning comedies were held out of the first week, as “Modern Family” “The Big Bang Theory” and “The Middle” broadcast double-episode premieres. So some of the reality shows may bounce back quickly. But a host of the stalwarts of that genre took ratings tumbles last week, including “Survivor” on CBS, “The Biggest Loser” on NBC and especially “Dancing With the Stars” on ABC. That series has been the bulwark of ABC’s schedule, but ratings declined for both of its episodes, with the Tuesday show down a startling 38 percent.

Kelly Kahl, the chief scheduler for CBS, said no conclusions should be drawn yet about the reality programs. “I think I would need to see things settle for a few weeks,” he said.

But Mr. Adgate said, “The question for these competition shows is: have they reached saturation? With comedies coming back, it may be almost the opposite of what’s been happening in the last decade.”

That saturation issue may have played some role in “The X Factor’s” performance. While executives at every network said they would love to have four hours a week of numbers that good, many agreed with Mr. Adgate, who said, “I thought the numbers were disappointing.”

He noted published reports that Fox had sold “The X Factor” to advertisers at a record price (for new shows) of $400,000 per 30-second commercial. “That made it clear Fox was expecting a huge hit,” Mr. Adgate said.

Of course, as Mr. Kahl put it, a success of any kind in premiere week is to be embraced. “The whole goal of premiere week is: don’t get buried right out of the box.”

Article source: http://feeds.nytimes.com/click.phdo?i=add88f8d99c728ab3396b66223903115

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