After months of hype and scheduling changes, NBC finally unleashed Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip, writer-producer Aaron Sorkin's showbiz satire, on the American public last Monday, the first night of the 2006-07 TV season.
NBC did beat CBS to win the night overall (an average 14.9 million viewers vs. 13.8 million). But most of that strength came from the two-hour premiere of the popular game show Deal or No Deal, which averaged 15.6 million total viewers and surged to 18.1 million during its final half-hour, immediately before Studio 60.
So how did the Sorkin show do? Well, you know what they say about satire.
An average of 13.4 million total viewers tuned in at 10 p.m. for Sorkin's $6 million pilot, starring Matthew Perry and Bradley Whitford as a writer/director duo who take over a struggling comedy-variety show a la Saturday Night Live. That was well ahead of ABC's reality show Supernanny (7 million) but a distant No. 2 behind CBS' fifth-season premiere of CSI: Miami (17.2 million), according to Nielsen Media Research.
At first glance, the Studio 60 numbers might seem OK for NBC, which muddled through a fourth-place finish last season. But dig a little deeper in the statistics and quite a different picture emerges. That's especially true among the young viewers who are crucial to the success of a sophisticated, culturally savvy show such as Studio 60.
NBC executives have made the show a centerpiece of their recovery plans this year and, with a high-profile cast that also includes Amanda Peet as a charming, well-read, near-angelic TV executive, they spent heavily for the privilege.
The network ponied up a reported license fee of $2 million an episode, about one-third higher than for a typical network drama, and committed to at least 13 episodes, with a hefty financial penalty payable to the studio, Warner Bros. Television, if the show is yanked before then.
Already there are rumblings that it is over budget, although people close to the show say that is common for a drama during the early phase of a season.
NBC could draw some good news from the tea leaves.
Studio 60 held on to a respectable 81 percent of the audience from Deal or No Deal, and NBC won the night overall both among total viewers and in the key category of adults ages 18-49, just creeping past CBS. Furthermore, Studio 60 did better than Patricia Arquette's Medium performed during the time slot last season - a key measure for network executives.
But the more one looked at the numbers, the worse the premiere seemed.
Studio 60 lost a significant number of viewers - roughly 21/2 million - throughout the hour, while CSI: Miami and Supernanny both slightly grew their audiences. Clearly, many viewers who sought out the NBC show or happened to stick around after Deal changed the channel.
This falloff was particularly steep among young adults: Studio 60 shed fully 20 percent of its adults ages 18-34 between the first and second half-hour (CSI slipped only slightly and Supernanny grew).
This is critical because the tastes and preferences of young adults typically shape what's hot on TV.
The rejection of Studio 60 by such a relatively high proportion of the plugged-in crowd is a signal that they won't be buzzing about the premiere - and it may prove tough for the program to catch on.
Another test will come tonight, when the show's second episode is shown. (It includes a brief guest appearance by John Mauceri, the new chancellor of the N.C. School of the Arts. He plays himself, hired to conduct a musical number on the show-within-a-show.)
NBC will lead into Sorkin's drama with Heroes, a new drama about ordinary people who find themselves imbued with extraordinary powers.