NEW YORK (TheStreet) -- The first week of the fall television season is gone, but the warning signs are already appearing.
The broadcast networks only debuted one new series -- with Fox (FOXA) airing its three-part, one-off alternate-society reality show Utopia -- but this was the week that the regulars started returning. Fox's Hell's Kitchen brought Gordon Ramsey back on Wednesday for a 13th season while both HBO and FX began the final seasons of Boardwalk Empire and Sons Of Anarchy, respectively. Unfortunately, if it wasn't football, few viewers cared.
Though the nearly 2.4 million viewers that Steve Buscemi and Boardwalk Empire drew to HBO tied it for the largest cable ratings share of Sunday night (1.0) with a Cartoon Network rerun of Family Guy, there were plenty of other shows drawing more eyeballs during its 9 p.m. Eastern time slot. Disney's (DIS) Disney Channel showing of Tangled drew 3.34 million around the same time, while the History Channel's Mountain Men drew 3 million viewers of its own.
All of that was crushed by NBC's Sunday Night Football, which rode an National Football League kickoff weekend matchup between the Indianapolis Colts and Denver Broncos to a 9.0 share and a whopping 23.7 million viewers. By comparison, the next most-watched show of the night, CBS' (CBS) Big Brother, lured just 7.1 million viewers. Fox's two-hour Utopia, meanwhile, managed just 4.3 million viewers and was pummeled by both football and CBS' Unforgettable (6.97 million).
Monday night, meanwhile, saw ESPN bludgeon both networks and cable competitors alike with a Monday Night Football doubleheader. Not only did the first installment at 7 p.m. Eastern draw nearly 14 million viewers and more than triple the nearly 4 million viewers per hour that the WWE brought to USA Network, but it more than doubled the viewership of the networks' most-watched show: ABC's Bachelor In Paradise at 6.7 million. It didn't get much easier at 10 p.m., as ESPN's second Monday Night Football game drew 11.5 million viewers to nearly double the 6.5 million who watched Under The Dome on CBS.
That isn't even the worst of the damage. Nearly 1.6 million viewers tuned in to ESPN at 5 p.m. EST to watch the Monday Night Football pregame show. MTV, by comparison, managed just 1.5 million for the season finale of it's passionately followed, heavily tweeted Teen Wolf.
This is why ESPN pays $1.9 billion a year for the rights to Monday Night Football and why NBC, Fox and CBS pay roughly $1 billion a year each for Sunday games.
On just about any other night of the week, however, solid programming can still score huge points for networks and companies looking for an edge. Fox's Utopia was a disaster in its second night with just 2.5 million viewers tuning in, but Fox salvaged the night by getting 6.1 million viewers to FX later that evening to check out the first episode of the final season of its biker drama Sons Of Anarchy. That doubled anything that aired on cable that evening, while drawing the third-largest audience overall behind CBS' Big Brother (6.8 million) and NBC's America's Got Talent (9.7 million). On a night riddled with reality shows and the CBS special Fashion Rocks, which saw just 2.4 million viewers tune in to watch Justin Bieber drop his pants on the runway, a cinematic, scripted cable drama held its own and got 2.4 million viewers to hang on and watch the Anarchy Afterword recap at 11 p.m. EST. That's no small deal, as that number helped hook Chrysler and its Dodge brand as the recap show's sponsor for the rest of the season.
Though CBS paid more than $700 million for the rights to Thursday Night Football and the ability to dominate Thursday broadcasts just by getting the NFL involved, the Sons Of Anarchy debut is a strong reminder that there is still a lot of soft underbelly in the fall television schedule. That should firm up a bit as more shows debut during the last few weeks of September, but networks and sponsors have a lot more viable options than just reality shows and football. When those alternatives are weak, however, networks lean more heavily on sports and reality series to carry the load. That isn't great for network television and its diminishing overall ratings, but it isn't great for bored consumers sent to other channels or online for solutions.
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-- Written by Jason Notte in Portland, Ore.
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