The broadcast networks officially kicked off the fall television season, and although NBC, ABC and CBS can all find something to crow about, there won't be a lot of smiles at Fox.
While all eyes were focused on the new shows launching, including CBS' remake of "Hawaii Five-0" and NBC's big-budget drama "The Event," it was ABC's old reliable "Dancing with the Stars," which this season has contestants ranging from "Brady Bunch" mom Florence Henderson and ex-NFL great Kurt Warner to "Jersey Shore" sensation Mike "The Situation" Sorrentino, that dominated the night. ABC averaged 17.7 million viewers, good enough for first place, and it also was on top in the 18-49 demographic that advertisers covet, followed by CBS, NBC, Fox and the CW.
Overall, about 47.4 million people tuned in to watch the premieres of five new television shows and new episodes of nine other series, according to Nielsen. That's a drop of about 5 million viewers or almost 10% from the first official night of last year's television season.
But the decrease in viewers can pretty much be squarely put on Fox, which saw its medical drama "House" return to relatively flat numbers compared with last season in the 8 p.m. hour and "Lone Star," the network's critically praised drama about a Texas con man, flame out at 9 p.m.. About 10.5 million people watched Monday's night's "House" and then more than 50% of them bailed out on "Lone Star," which averaged about 4 million viewers. Last year, a two-hour episode of "House" averaged over 17 million viewers.
Fox knew it would have hard sell with "Lone Star," and it was facing off against particularly tough competition from CBS -- which had a season premiere of its hit comedy "Two and a Half Men" followed by "Mike & Molly," a new romantic comedy -- and NBC, which was launching the heavily hyped "The Event."
"Lone Star," which stars James Wolk, David Keith and Jon Voight, received mostly favorable reviews, and there will no doubt be second guessing within the industry over whether Fox might have been better off premiering the show a few weeks into the season, after some of the competition had already launched their shows. However, Fox is challenged somewhat in its fall scheduling strategies because it carries postseason baseball in October, which eats up a chunk of nights. The network will scrutinize Nielsen's numbers on digital video recordings of the show in hopes that there is an audience that was curious about "Lone Star" but wanted to watch it on their schedule.
CBS' big event for Monday night was its new take on "Hawaii Five-0." The show, which replaced "CSI Miami" in the 10 p.m. slot, averaged 13.8 million viewers, making it the most watched new show for the night. The performance was only 3% off from what David Caruso and his gang did last year in their season premiere. "Mike & Molly" also got off to decent start, with 12.3 million viewers. Although that was a drop of 15% from its lead-in of "Two and a Half Men," it was only 5% off from what "The Big Bang Theory" averaged in its season premiere in the same 9:30 p.m. slot a year ago. This season, CBS has moved "The Big Bang Theory" to Thursday night.
NBC, which is trying to recover from last year's disaster of a television season, can take some encouragement from the performance of "The Event." The program, a serial about a plot that affects everyone in the country and outer space, stars Jason Ritter and Blair Underwood and is NBC's big bet for the fall. It averaged 11.2 million viewers, which is not a spectacular number given the show's cost, but is much better than what the network did last year in the same time period. More important, the audience for "The Event" grew in the second half-hour, which is a good sign. The real test, though, for a big-budget premiere like "The Event" is how many people stick around after the second episode, which won't have the same special effects.
Another factor in Monday night's numbers will be the performance of "Monday Night Football," which featured a nail-biter between the San Francisco 49ers and New Orleans Saints, that went down to the final play when the Saints kicked a winning field goal. UPDATED: Indeed, about 15.1 million people watched the game on ESPN, making it the second most-watched show of the night after "Dancing with the Stars."
HBO, which on Sunday night premiered its expensive new series, "Boardwalk Empire," about Atlantic City corruption in the age of Prohibition, said it was renewing the show for a second season. The premiere averaged 4.8 million viewers in the Sunday 9 p.m. hour. It was HBO's best series premiere since "Deadwood," which had the benefit of a "Sopranos" lead-in when it made its debut in 2004.
-- Joe Flint
Photo: A scene from CBS' "Hawaii Five-O." Credit: Mario Perez /CBS