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Water-cooler hits, excitement scarce this TV season as viewers flock to familiar shows, stars

LOS ANGELES — At first glance, the new TV season looks less than heroic.

There's been no water-cooler hit akin to last year's "Heroes," although two newcomers, "Pushing Daisies" and "Private Practice," hold promise. And after a spring audience exodus, network viewership compared with last fall is down as much as 10 percent by one measurement.

Broadcasters have no one to blame but themselves, contends one analyst.

"The networks haven't delivered the compelling new shows that viewers get excited about," said Shari Anne Brill of ad-buyer Carat USA. She recalled instant, buzzed-about hits "Desperate Housewives" and "Lost" from seasons past.

With the top networks delivering a combined 40 million weekly viewers to advertisers, broadcasting remains a potent platform, said Marc Berman, analyst for Media Week Online. But the medium is only as strong as its programming.

"Did the networks really put on anything that people said, 'Wow, I have to watch this?"' Berman said.

As far as new shows go, the answer is a resounding no.

Through the first few weeks of the season, the frontrunners aren't heavily promoted newcomers, but returning stalwarts. CBS' "CSI: Crime Scene Investigation" and ABC's "Dancing with the Stars" and "Grey's Anatomy" each drew more than 19 million viewers last week to lead the ratings.

After strong debuts, "Private Practice" and "Pushing Daisies" failed to break into last week's top tier but ranked 18th (12.4 million) and 30th (10.3 million), respectively, among total viewers. Also showing potential were NBC's "Bionic Woman" and ABC's "Women's Murder Club."

Latecomer "Murder Club," starring Angie Harmon, drew more than 10.8 million viewers in its Oct. 12 debut to score as the most-watched new show for the week.

Many freshman series have a comfortably familiar cast. Harmon is known to viewers from "Law & Order." Kate Walsh slid over from "Grey's Anatomy" to spinoff "Private Practice," and her new co-stars, Tim Daly, Taye Diggs and Amy Brenneman, aren't fresh faces.

Lee Pace of "Pushing Daisies" is a welcome TV addition but so far it's the show's concept (everyman who raises the dead) and glossy execution that's gained attention. If there's a breakout like Masi Oka ("Heroes") in the wings, he or she has yet to be anointed with the requisite magazine covers.

Freshly minted stars equal excitement, the element that's painfully absent from the fall schedule.

The shaggy, virtually unrecognizable leads in ABC's "Cavemen" aren't candidates, and the show itself is looking unkempt. Other ratings-challenged freshman include "Carpoolers" on ABC, CW's critically praised "Aliens in America" and CBS' "Kid Nation."

Borderline entries that could still get traction include "Dirty Sexy Money," "Big Shots" and "The Big Bang Theory."

Then there's "K-Ville," an ambitious police drama set in post-Katrina New Orleans, which drew just 5.3 million viewers last week. But Fox is not ready to pull the plug, said Preston Beckman, Fox's executive vice president for strategic planning.

"We like what we're seeing," Beckman said. "The ratings are not spectacular but it's a show we hope we can get more people to come and sample. It's not going to become the big hit of the fall season, but every network needs 15 to 20 hours (of programming) and we don't want to throw out shows with a future."

The networks themselves are pondering their own futures and what the all-important — and under revision — ratings hold for them.

Among all viewers, the combined total of the five top networks dropped 10 percent for the first three weeks of the season compared to last year, according to a report by Madison Avenue firm Magna Global. Networks individually have seen single to double-digit losses.

Last year, the networks started with a small boost over fall 2005 viewership, only to see the 2006-07 seasons falter in its final months as the network audience dropped by more than 2 million people.

Broadcasters insisted that the ratings, which measured digital video recording (DVR) viewing within 24 hours of the original broadcast, were failing to capture the large number of people who take their time to catch up on recorded shows.

So Nielsen Media Research has started gathering data on commercial viewership and providing figures on audience use of DVRs to watch a show within a seven-day window after broadcast. The new ratings themselves are delayed, released 15 days after the broadcast week.

When seven days of DVR viewership for the season's debut week is figured in, the combined network decline is 7 percent, Magna Global said. Among the young adult 18-to-49 audience captured by the live-plus-seven-day rating, NBC managed a 2 percent increase.

However the numbers are crunched, the historical reality is that two out of three new series fail. But this season may bring them an unlikely, if temporary, benefactor: Labor unrest.

Hollywood writers could go on strike against film and TV studios, shutting down production. The risk of an empty pipeline endows a weak series with value.

"If you're going to cancel a show, you've got to put something on," Fox's Beckman said. "Every hour is precious if there's a strike, and you've got to hold your powder and conserve resources."