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Never Mind the Boat Race of First-Week TV Ratings – The Real Race Begins in Week Two
September 25, 2016  | By Alex Strachan

The boat race is over. The horse race is about to begin.

Winds of change might be buffeting the TV industry, but some things never change, based on the evidence of the past week.

Audience habits may be shifting, so-called HUT (houses using television) levels may be down — “so-called” because the typical household isn’t what it used to be — and advertisers may be looking for other ways to get their message across, but the media still cover the first week of any new season the same way they did 10 years ago, or decades ago for that matter.

Winners and losers. Early indicators of success or cancellation. Instant hits and immediate duds. And the sneaking suspicion that reviews don’t count for much anymore. Ladies and gentleman, please give it up for MacGyver: The Reboot. The reviews were, um, lukewarm, if that. The ratings were hot.

And yet, we know the fastest starter doesn’t always win the race. The smart money is always on the late bloomer. Seinfeld famously stumbled out of the gate but won by a wide margin in the end. Not every TV show remains a cultural touchstone 18 years later.

Examples of late-in-life success are legion, even in TV’s present climate of impatience and easy distractions. We keep being told the overnight numbers don’t matter anymore, but the networks keep announcing them and the media keep reporting them.

The past week’s numbers have pointed up the strengths of newcomers Bull (15.56 million viewers), Kevin Can Wait (top, 11.08 million), MacGyver (10.89 million), This Is Us (10.07 million), Designated Survivor (10.04 million), The Good Place (8.04 million), Lethal Weapon (7.93 million), Speechless (7.38 million), and the early weaknesses of Notorious (5.43 million), Pitch (4.28 million) and The Exorcist (left, 2.9 million). The poorly reviewed Kevin Can Wait, the very definition of a critic-proof show, and MacGyver show early signs of being breakout hits, and The Exorcist is poised to be an early candidate for cancellation. Instant numbers can be misleading, though: Kevin Can Wait owes much of its success to having Big Bang Theory as a lead-in, and God only knows how much Hell’s Kitchen’s surprisingly soft debut hurt The Exorcist. A weak lead-in can be a killer for a new show that was always going to be a tough sell to begin with. Similarly, only time will tell how much of Bull owes its opening-night numbers to having NCIS as a lead-in.

It’s only natural that attention is focused on the newcomers — they are, after all, an unknown quantity — but the past week’s ratings proved the old adage that the shows viewers really want to see are their returning favorites. NCIS (15.99 million viewers), Big Bang Theory (15.82 million) and The Voice (12.10 million) all peaked at or near the top of the ratings charts.

The surprisingly durable Grey’s Anatomy (8.75 million viewers, despite being in its 13th season) held its own against the NFL’s Thursday Night Kickoff pre-game show (8.90 million). And summer debut Superstore — picked up for a second season — finished a more-than-respectable third in its time period (5.45 million).

The real test for the newcomers, though, will come this week, and next, and the week after that. The curiosity factor is no longer a factor, and second-week ratings are measured by how far a new show falls in its second week. A slight drop suggests long-term success — a full season pick-up — and a large drop often brings unwanted scrutiny.

It’s a rule-of-thumb in the TV business that stability-over-time weighs more in renewal decisions than whether a new show bursts out of the blocks. Lost made an immediate impact on its debut night, but it was those next few weeks that proved it had the all-important staying power. Never mind how Lost ended — I’m still torn over whether I liked or disliked the finale — but there’s little doubt that, as a series, Lost was special, and I miss it terribly.

As longtime industry watchers know, many factors affect first-week numbers, everything from a new show’s lead-in to the time-period competition. Would MacGyver get those numbers opposite The Voice?

Unlikely. But it’s the perfect show for a Friday night, and a good companion for Hawaii Five-0, which hails from the same producer, Peter Lenkov. Now that old-school MacGyver fans have seen Lucas Till (right) and can compare him straight-up with Richard Dean Anderson, they can make an informed decision on whether they’ll be back this coming Friday. My guess is they will, the same way fans of Jack Lord and James MacArthur came back for Alex O’Loughlin and Scott Caan, even if begrudgingly at first.

MacGyver outperformed Last Man Standing —yes, Last Man is still standing! — and, worryingly for Fox, Hell’s Kitchen, even in the younger demos that are supposedly Hell’s Kitchen’s bread-and-butter.

The Exorcist, meanwhile, scared up less than a third as many viewers as the older-skewing MacGyver, which suggests, if nothing else, that The Exorcist faces a struggle. Yes, The Exorcist could always register an uptick in its second week and grow from there, but the odds are against it. It doesn’t help The Exorcist’s chances, either, that Cinemax got there first with the more intense, more absorbing Outcast, which took a clever if goofy idea — an incompetent exorcist fesses up to his past mistakes — and turned it into a credible, occasionally scary horror show. Cinemax quickly tapped Outcast for a second season, and while it’s unfair to compare premium cable with a broadcast network, the fact remains: Outcast will be back, while The Exorcist seems headed for TV purgatory.

As The Good Place has shown us, heaven can wait.

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