A lot of TV industry veterans consider week 3 of the fall season the most crucial to figuring out whether a show will succeed or fail. Premiere week numbers inevitably fall off for week 2, but by week 3, viewing patterns start to establish themselves. If the week 2 to week 3 fall-off is small (or if, by some miracle, new viewers start coming), the show might just work. If they're still falling, though? Trouble.
Obviously, there's still a whole lot of the season to be played, but after three full weeks, we know some things. Two shows have been canceled and one is on life support. On the other hand, only one new show has gotten a full-season order, and nothing has been an out-of-the-gate smash, which either speaks to the mediocrity of the freshman class or to the difficulty of breaking through in such a crowded entertainment environment.
Keeping that in mind - as well as the idea that ratings are often relative, and lead-ins and timeslot competition often matters as much as the raw number in determining success or failure - here are some very early winners and losers, as well as those shows where it's too early to tell.
"Raising Hope" (FOX): It's neither the highest-rated new show of the season, nor the top new comedy, but it was the season's first rookie to get a full-season order. FOX execs are pleased with how much of the "Glee" audience it's retained at 9 - and also concerned with how much "Running Wilde" falls off at 9:30.
"Blue Bloods" (CBS): Thus far, Tom Selleck is soundly winning the Friday at 10 Battle of the '80s and/or '90s Stars with Jimmy Smits and "Outlaw." "Blue Bloods" is the most-watched show on Fridays by a comfortable margin, and while much of its audience is over 50 (and therefore less valuable to advertisers), the raw number is big enough that CBS will be content with the percentage of it that lives in the 18-49 demographic (and particularly with the percentage in the 25-54 range that CBS pushes).
"Glee" (FOX): FOX launched the show a year and a half ago after "American Idol," scheduled a fall edition of "So You Think You Can Dance" so "Glee" would have an established lead-in, then put it after "Idol" again in the spring. This season, "Glee" has had to stand on its own, and has done it quite well. The Britney Spears episode two weeks ago was the show's highest-rated ever, with or without "Idol," and while the numbers dropped back down for the Britney-less "Grilled Cheesus," it's still the network's biggest gun at least until "Idol" returns.
"Survivor" (CBS) & "The Big Bang Theory" (CBS): After years of defeating all comers on Thursdays at 8, "Survivor" moved back to Wednesdays so CBS could try to establish a comedy beach head on the most profitable night of the week. So far, both moves have gone swimmingly. "Survivor" is still handily winning its timeslot, and "Big Bang" is handily winning its timeslot by all significant measures.
"Hawaii Five-0" (CBS): The remake of the '70s cop drama hasn't been quite the monster hit CBS had hoped for, but it's still doing quite well for itself. And if the numbers are only around what the fading "CSI: Miami" was doing in the timeslot last season, the show's presence allowed CBS to move "Miami" to Sundays, where it's improved on what "Cold Case" was doing. So win-win.
"Hellcats" & "Nikita" (CW): Like most CW shows, the numbers would be laughable and cancellation-worthy on the big four networks. But both have improved their time periods from last season (and, in the case of "Nikita," allowed the CW to move "Supernatural" to Fridays, where it's done well), and seem very likely to get full-season pick-ups.
"Human Target" (FOX): It won't even return until mid-November, but that's part of why it's a winner. Originally, it was scheduled to be part of a Friday action bloc with "The Good Guys," but nobody watches FOX on Fridays, as evidenced by the anemic "Good Guys" ratings, and "Target" was sure to be in danger of early cancellation had the original plan been carried out. Instead, "Lone Star" was canceled after two weeks, "Lie to Me" got rushed on to replace it, and now "Human Target" gets to debut in the more livable Wednesday timeslot that was going to be home to "Lie to Me."
"Body of Proof" (ABC): Similar situation to "Human Target." This drama with Dana Delany as a medical examiner was going to air on Fridays, premiere date TBD, but so many of ABC's other new shows struggled that instead the network decided to wait and will launch it in a different/better timeslot, presumably after they decide which of their other rookies they can live without.
"Lone Star" (FOX): Disastrous opening week ratings. Even worse ratings for week 2. First cancellation of the season before week 3. Promising show, but nobody watched.
"My Generation" (ABC): See "Lone Star," only without the strong reviews. ABC replaced it with "Grey's Anatomy" repeats.
"Outlaw" (NBC): Unlike the other two, this is still on the air, but it's dead. Anemic ratings, and production has already been halted.
"Undercovers" (ABC): NBC had a pair of unknown stars with exotic names in Boris Kodjoe and Gugu Mbatha-Raw, so instead most of the promotion revolved around co-creator J.J. Abrams - which has never proved to have value in launching a new show. (The "Lost" campaign was more about the premise than "From the man who brought you 'Alias'!") Three weeks in, its demographic ratings are already well below "Chuck," even though "Chuck" gets virtually no promotion.
"The Whole Truth" (ABC): Its premiere week ratings were almost as awful as the ones for "Lone Star," and the only thing that might keep it alive for another few weeks is that the numbers ticked up slightly in week 3, at the same time that both its rivals were slipping. Still, starting from too small a base to likely have a chance to survive to May.
"The Good Guys" (FOX): See the "Human Target" entry above. Even factoring in that the cop action comedy is being produced on a cheaper cable-sized budget, the ratings are terrible. Its only hope of long-term survival was if "Human Target" somehow brought a bunch of male viewers with it to Friday, but now it, and they, aren't coming.
"Running Wilde" (FOX): Again, the drop-off from "Raising Hope" to this (let alone from "Glee" to this) is not good, and FOX has already chosen to follow the "Rocky Horror Picture Show" episode of "Glee" with back-to-back "Raising Hope"s, pre-empting this. The third episode was a creative improvement on the first two, but the numbers aren't good.
TOO EARLY TO TELL:
"Mike & Molly" (CBS): It, not "Raising Hope," is the season's highest-rated new comedy, and its numbers did go up a bit in week 3. And its existence allowed CBS to make the "Big Bang" move. But unlike the "Hawaii Five-0" situation, "Mike & Molly" is off significantly from what its predecessor was doing in the timeslot last season. It's fine for now, but it wouldn't be shocking to see CBS try another comedy here at mid-season.
"Law & Order: Los Angeles" (NBC): The debut episode handily won the timeslot and had people praising NBC and Dick Wolf for the guts to do a spin-off on the West Coast. The second episode, though, was down about 20 percent. Because it premiered a week late, we'll get the all-important Week 3 numbers in a few days.
"No Ordinary Family" (ABC): Drew a more-than-solid debut audience. Dipped 15 percent in week 2. As with "Law & Order: LA," debuted a week late and therefore we don't know when/where it's going to stabilize.
"The Event" (NBC): What is The Event? NBC had better hope it isn't a big drop in Week 4 to match the ones from Weeks 2 and 3. If not for a strong debut audience, this one might already be on the Losers list.
"Detroit 1-8-7" (ABC): Not distinguishing itself Tuesdays at 10, but neither is the competition, and most of its positives could be attributed to airing after the "Dancing with the Stars" results show. This could easily be the show that gets moved (maybe to replace "The Whole Truth"?) or canceled for "Body of Proof."
"Better with You" (ABC): The assumption had been that this was just holding a spot for one of ABC's many mid-season comedies (notably the Matthew Perry-starring "Mr. Sunshine"), but it's retaining most of its demographic lead-in from "The Middle," so it might survive while ABC figures out if it has a place for comedies outside of Wednesdays.
"$#*! My Dad Says" (CBS) & "Outsourced" (NBC): Other than perhaps the already-done "My Generation," no new shows got more savage reviews than these two Thursday comedies. Both have strong lead-in audiences (from "Big Bang Theory" and "The Office," respectively) and have done a mediocre job of holding onto them. (Last week, both were hovering around 70 percent retention in the demographic.) Not bad enough to get them the swift cancellation many are rooting for (particularly "Outsourced," since it took the spot of "Parks and Recreation"), but their downward trends suggest neither is a long-term answer.
"The Defenders" (CBS) & "Chase" (NBC): Not doing as poorly as some of the shows that have been canceled, but not doing especially well, either, and dipping.
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org