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The Six Untold Stories of This Season’s TV Ratings

Here are the three most commonly cited revelations about the 2012 TV season so far: Every major network but NBC is down in the ratings; there are no new breakout hits (with the possible exception of Revolution); and the networks really, really want everybody to remember how many folks now watch shows via DVR. Oh, and a fourth: The Walking Dead may now be the most commercially successful series in the history of basic cable. But beyond these well-covered talking points, a few other interesting trend lines have emerged six weeks into the new season. We dug into TV's version of exit polls – the Nielsen ratings – and identified six other notable nuggets about the season-to-date.

1. New Girl and 2 Broke Girls are having major sophomore ratings slumps

When shows debut as well as these two did last season, networks have often been able to keep the momentum going and even increase viewership in season two. ABC's Modern Family, for example, was a big hit when it bowed in 2009; its Nielsen numbers in its second and third seasons were actually even bigger. Over at CBS, The Big Bang Theory grew its ratings each of its first three seasons; now, in its sixth season, the show is drawing some of its biggest audiences ever. But so far, last season's two biggest comedy hits are going in the opposite direction. Compared to a similar time frame last fall, New Girl is down a whopping 35 percent and 2 Broke is off 23 percent with adults under 50. These declines are particularly concerning because both CBS and Fox were expecting these shows to anchor their respective Monday and Tuesday comedy lineups; the down numbers ripple through the rest of the evening and have helped contribute to both networks' overall double-digit Nielsen declines this fall.

Now, while none of this can be considered good, there are mitigating factors that help explain why programmers at CBS and Fox aren't totally flipping out over the development. For one thing, a big part of the year-to-year declines can be chalked up to new lead-ins for both shows. 2 Broke Girls, which shifted from 8:30 p.m. last year to 9 p.m., now has the horribly-rated (and likely soon-to-be-canceled) Partners airing in front of it, rather than former lead-in How I Met Your Mother. And instead of following Glee, New Girl now airs behind struggling freshman Ben and Kate (which this week notched a meager 1.1 rating among viewers under 50, sending New Girl to third place in its 9 p.m. timeslot). It's also worth noting that both shows had been declining last spring, so while they're still down from their fall 2011 numbers, the declines don't indicate some sudden abandonment by viewers. The challenge now for CBS and Fox (and producers) is to try to lure back audiences who had drifted away from these comedies. The Eye will likely cancel Partners in January, and put something stronger (Rules of Engagement? Big Bang Theory repeats?) in the pre-2 Broke Girls slot. Fox has indicated that it's sticking with Ben and Kate until spring, so it will have to hope that New Girl continues to get good buzz and that viewers remember why they fell in love with it in the first place. Perhaps a holiday week marathon of the show might help.

2. FX's Sons of Anarchy has become a Tuesday powerhouse

AMC's The Walking Dead has rightfully garnered lots of attention this fall for its jaw-dropping Nielsen performance. But it's not the only cable drama that's challenging broadcast fare for timeslot supremacy. FX's Sons of Anarchy, now in its fifth season, is regularly garnering bigger ratings among adults under 50 than either of its two network drama rivals on Tuesdays at 10 p.m.: Sons averages a 3.4 rating (including DVR) in the demo, dwarfing the 2.8 garnered by both ABC's Private Practice and NBC's Parenthood. Sons is also a bigger demo draw than a slew of other 10 p.m. dramas on other nights, including Castle, Hawaii Five-0, Chicago Fire, Scandal, Vegas, The Good Wife and Private Practice. It's an even bigger hit when compared to other shows on cable: Except for Dead and HBO's True Blood, no other series on cable has a bigger number of 18-49 viewers this year.

3. Dancing with the Stars is in need of Nielsen CPR

The once-mighty reality competition has been cha-cha-cha-ing its way down the Nielsen charts for a couple cycles now, but the extent of its decline has become striking this fall: Average tune-in is down nearly 25 percent, to 14.3 million viewers. Worse, younger audiences – never a super-strong suit for DWTS – have pretty much abandoned the series: It's down 32 percent among those under 50 and a shuddering 38 percent with those under 35. ABC had hoped to arrest recent declines this fall by bringing back fan faves for an all-star edition, but the move seems to have had the opposite effect. Some industry insiders speculate that viewers really weren't interested in seeing the "stars" go through all the same moves again, figuring that the biggest part of the show's appeal is discovering new amateurs attempting to get down. Regardless of the reasons behind the falling ratings, what's particularly worrisome for ABC is the fact that DWTS occupies a full three hours of the network's lineup. So in much the same way The Voice and American Idol sharply boost NBC and Fox, the drop-off for DWTS hurts ABC three times as much as just one poorly performing drama. One industry insider speculated that if there's a bright side to all of this, it's that, by not casting new celebs this season, ABC might have a better shot at making the next cycle's cast stronger, since the talent pool will not have been drained as quickly. (Which is definitely looking at the glass as one-sixteenth full.) Longer-term, however, Alphabet suits may want to consider resting DWTS a bit, limiting it to once a year. That's the strategy ABC pursued with The Bachelor starting in 2008, and it worked: The show is still a proven Nielsen performer and begins its seventeenth cycle next winter.

4. Shark Tank has bite

Most returning shows on ABC this fall are drawing less viewers than they did last fall, but not Shark Tank: Its audience this fall of roughly 7.1 million viewers is actually up nearly 20 percent vs. the same period last fall. And even though its premise — aspiring entrepreneurs hit up moguls for money — might seem a little old-skewing, Tank does great with young viewers, regularly ranking as one of the only shows on Friday nights to crack a 2 rating among viewers under 50 and giving ABC its best Friday 9 p.m. demo numbers since 2005. What's particularly amazing about Tank is that it's achieving these great results relatively late in its life. So far in this fourth season, nearly 50 episodes into its run, the show has notched its five biggest audiences ever. And while this may say as much about the aforementioned fade of Dancing with the Stars, Tank now almost matches the ratings of the dancing show's Tuesday results hour. (Shark Tank is also very popular with rich folks: Other than The Amazing Race, no other reality show on network TV boasts a bigger concentration of viewers under 50 who make more than $100,000 per year.)

This success could lead to some serious debates inside ABC over the next few weeks over whether to move Tank to another night of the week, where the overall TV audience is bigger, in order to make the show an even bigger hit. The risk in that, of course, is that Tank would also face more intense competition, and actually end up with lower numbers. One idea: ABC could double-pump Tank for a few weeks this season, perhaps airing new episodes on both Thursday and Friday. It could then see how the show fares on another night, without risking its hard-earned status as a Friday night hit.

5. NCIS: LA is thriving opposite the other networks’ Tuesday comedy tsunami

As ABC, Fox and NBC slug it out with similarly young-skewing sitcoms in the 9 p.m. Tuesday hour, CBS's very unhip crime procedural has emerged as the undisputed time period champ – not just in overall viewership, but also with younger viewers under 50. Last fall, Fox's red-hot New Girl was often beating NCIS: Cool J with adults under 50, while the Dancing with the Stars results show was stealing away older viewers. But the story is much different this season. The Eye drama is averaging 17.6 million viewers every week, nearly matching the combined audience of comedy hours on the other three networks (which collectively reach a little over 20 million viewers). And with those under 50, NCIS: LA averages a 3.5 rating, tied with New Girl and better than Go On, The New Normal, The Mindy Project, Happy Endings and Don't Trust the B---- in Apt. 23. Impressively, despite the much-hyped new competition, NCIS: LA's overall audience is virtually unchanged from last fall. And while its demo ratings are lower than last season, the roughly 15 percent decline is smaller than the drop-offs for other established CBS dramas such as the CSI franchise, Blue Bloods, Criminal Minds, and The Mentalist.  

6. Glee: Signs of life?

Last season, much of the buzz surrounding Ryan Murphy’s high school musical was negative: The show's ratings were down, critics (many of whom hadn't loved the show since season one) seemed particularly harsh on it, and there was uncertainty about just how Glee would make sense once so many of its core cast graduated. It's still early, but so far this fall, Glee appears to have rediscovered at least some of its musical mojo. The year's fourth episode, in which everybody broke up with each other, didn't just send Gleeks into an emotional tailspin – it also got critics raving. And while the new kids in Lima have been a snore, the New York-based portions of the show have generally seemed to work. As for ratings, they are down from last year, but just barely. While most of Fox's regular series have plunged 20 to 30 percent (in line with similar declines for many CBS and ABC shows this fall), Glee so far is off just 10 percent vs. last fall among viewers under 50. And its 4.0 demo rating (once DVR viewing is factored in) puts Glee on par with younger shows such as Revenge and New Girl. Part of the encouraging Nielsen numbers can be chalked up to the show's new 9 p.m. Thursday timeslot: Instead of leading off a night, it now has a lead-in from The X Factor.

Of course, with Glee, it's always best to temper any optimism: It's proven quite capable at veering completely off track at a moment's notice. Last week's episode, devoted almost entirely to Lima, had little of the magic seen in the break-up hour. Still, for now at least, a series that seemed ready to wrap it up just a few months ago now seems very likely to return for a fifth season.

Photo: FOX, FX