NEW YORK -- Two months into a new television season, the big winner is ...
Frankly, it's hard to tell -- just like in another high-profile contest. There have been a few modest hits, many more misses and the promise of a tight race for dominance between ABC, NBC and CBS before the season ends in May.
Viewers turned a new drama about forensic pathologists into an unexpected hit while yawning at stars like Bette Midler and Geena Davis. They've rejected everything new that NBC has tried, while rewarding the 11-year-old "Law and Order" with its best ratings ever.
And they're still watching "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire" in big numbers, even if the kids have drifted on to something new.
The prime-time averages of the top three networks are only 1.1 million viewers apart. For now, ABC is in the lead, NBC is second and CBS third. Fox is improving after an awful year last year.
ABC is the only one of the Big Three to show an increase from last year, an average of 700,000 viewers a night. Attribute that to Regis Philbin: "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire" has aired four times a week this season after being on only as a special in November 1999.
"It's really 'Millionaire' that's kept them alive," said Stacey Lynn Koerner, an analyst for the advertising firm TN Media. "Their new series certainly didn't do it."
New series starring Davis and Andre Braugher have started slowly, and ABC was hurt when it abandoned its teen-driven Friday lineup.
Philbin saturation was a calculated risk. The game show still routinely beats all comers, but its viewership has slipped from its peak. The show's popularity with older viewers has increased the average age of ABC's audience by five years, and advertisers pay a premium for youth.
ABC executives say they purposely held off introducing many new series to ride the "Millionaire" wave. But if that wave crashes, it will leave a hitless schedule behind.
NBC's new fall shows have been a disaster, leading to rumblings that entertainment president Garth Ancier's job may be in jeopardy. Four of the seven new shows have already been canceled, and only the quirky "Ed" has shown critical and commercial promise.
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