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Have NBC's ratings finally turned the corner?

April 14, 2009 |  5:04 pm

Cue those NBC chimes. Some viewers may snicker at the thought of this, but it's possible, just possible, that a few glimmers of hope are shining for the network whose troubles are so well-known even Jay Leno jokes about them. 

Over the past few years, the network has become nearly as well known for management miscues and skimpy ratings as for its programming lineup. But in recent days a bit of life has stirred in the old peacock.

The latest evidence comes in the form of its new Amy Poehler sitcom, "Parks & Recreation," and "Southland," the Los Angeles cop drama from "ER" producer John Wells. Both series premiered Thursday to surprisingly strong numbers. Overall, "Parks" picked up a relatively modest 6.9 million total viewers, according to data from Nielsen Media Research. But on the strength of Poehler's popularity from "Saturday Night Live," the premiere proved popular with those all-important young viewers sought by advertisers, hanging on to a healthy 88% of the young-adult audience from "The Office," which is NBC's No. 2 show overall. 

As for "Southland," the premiere beat CBS' heavily promoted (but poorly reviewed) mystery "Harper's Island" among adults aged 18 to 49, with a 3.2 rating versus a 2.6. And the race was closer than expected among total viewers, with "Southland's" 9.9 million nearly matching the 10.2 million for CBS. Both shows would likely have fared worse had ABC not aired a repeat of "Private Practice" in the 10 p.m. hour, but NBC nevertheless enjoyed one of its most encouraging starts for a dramatic series in quite some time.

So does all this mean rivals should start looking over their shoulders? Well, not exactly.

There's no guarantee that the new series won't suffer the same fates as, say, the ill-fated fantasy "Heroes" -- that is, a fast start followed by a premature swoon. The network's only top 10 entry is Sunday night football, which doesn't even air during the second half of the season. Indeed, NBC still has a long way to go before any sort of recovery could be confirmed. Season to date, the network ranks No. 4 in total viewers (8 million average) and is tied with ABC for No. 3 among viewers aged 18 to 49. 

Still unknown, meanwhile, is the impact of NBC's highly controversial move to put a new Leno talk show at 10 p.m. weeknights next season, which eliminates a key showcase for dramas like "Southland."

Yet for the first time in years, long-term trends are beginning to smile on NBC. The ratings hemorrhage seems to have been halted, at least for now; NBC is flat compared with last season in young adults, while ABC and Fox are both down (CBS is up 7%). The network's prime-time audience is getting slightly younger -- to a median age of 47.2 this year from last season's 48 -- while all of its rivals have seen their audiences get older. That's an important metric for youth-obsessed marketers.

And perhaps the best news: Fox's "American Idol," which has decimated midweek competition for years, continues to decline, down 9% to 27 million viewers on Tuesdays this season. That creates opportunities for NBC as well as its rivals.

The message? NBC is nowhere near its glory days of the 1980s and 1990s. But Leno might want to use up those jokes about his employer's problems while he still can. 

-- Scott Collins


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