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Putting Ratings in Perspective: Today’s Hits Are Yesterday’s Bombs

New Girl, Modern Family, Pan Am.

The 2011 TV season is officially under way, and most of the shows have done pretty respectably, particularly the comedies — where 10 million viewers now certifies a show as a hit. (Congratulations, Suburgatory, New Girl, and 2 Broke Girls.) But there was a time not too long ago when shows premiered to three times that number: Veronica's Closet pulled in 35 million viewers for its premiere in 1997. Around 14 million people watched Walker, Texas Ranger every week. Network numbers just aren't what they used to be, and you don't have to go very far back in time to prove it. Herewith, a Harper's Index–style statistical representation of that fact.

14.3 million: Viewers for the season premiere of Modern Family, by all accounts a hit, and an Emmy darling if ever there were one.

15.5 million: Viewers for an October 1997 episode of Promised Land, the spinoff of Touched by an Angel. It wasn't even sweeps.

27.7 million: Viewers for the season premiere of Two and a Half Men — a shockingly high number, and the most-watched sitcom since 2005's Everybody Loves Raymond series finale.

27.3 million: Viewers who watched a rerun of Grace Under Fire on a Tuesday in March 1995. A rerun.

9.2 million: Viewers it takes to get picked up, this time for New Girl.

10.9 million: People who tuned in for kicky period piece Pan Am's premiere, enough to earn it its hit wings.

9.8 million: What landed My So-Called Life in the bottom 10 for its entire run, before it was canceled.

1.6 million: Difference between the premiere of Up All Night (6 million), NBC's hit new comedy, and the premiere of Thanks, CBS's Puritan sitcom that aired six episodes in 1999. Thanks had 1.6 million more viewers.

1: Number of This American Life segments about Thanks.

9.2 million: Viewers it takes to get picked up, this time for New Girl.

14.3 million: Viewers for the season premiere of Modern Family, by all accounts a hit, and an Emmy darling if ever there were one.

10.9 million: People who tuned in for kicky period piece Pan Am's premiere, enough to earn it its hit wings.

10.1 million: People who tuned in for kicky period piece Brisco County Jr. in 1994, shortly before it was canceled.

41 million: Home Improvement's ratings for a not-at-all-special third-season episode in February 1994.

10: Number of the ten lowest-rated shows the week of February 7-13, 1994 that did better than Parks and Recreation or Community's season premieres.

5: Number of the same lowest-rated shows that week that did better than Parks and Rec and Community combined.