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The Globe and Mail

Bigger is obviously not better in the new TV season

It isn't official, but there is widespread consensus that the two-hour pilot episode of Fox's Terra Nova cost about $20-million to make. On Monday, in the United States, it drew about nine million viewers. That means it cost about $2 to reach each viewer. Ouch.

As part of his relentless promotion of The X Factor, Simon Cowell appeared on NBC's Today a couple of weeks ago and said he was looking at his show to start with an audience of 20 million. It drew 12.5 million on its first night. It was solidly beaten on that night by the hour-long season premiere of sitcom Modern Family, which drew 14.5 million viewers. Ouch again. On night two of The X Factor, it held steady at 12.5 million. But it was beaten by The Big Bang Theory's one-hour season premiere, which had 14.4 million viewers. Double ouch.

What's going on here? These are early days in the U.S. network's new season, but already it appears that big misses are notable. And the new hits are small-scale comedies.

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The Fox sitcom New Girl, which aired after the season premiere of Glee, did well, starting with 10.1 million last week and holding 92 per cent of that number in its second week. The ratings for episode two of the Ashton Kutcher era of Two and a Half Men were expected to decline from the much-hyped first week and did so, but the show is still doing better than in its last Charlie Sheen-era season.

Another comedy, 2 Broke Girls, which got great reviews, started last week with a boost: It aired immediately after the return of Two and Half Men. That meant it drew an astonishing 19.4 million viewers, which made it officially the best fall comedy premiere in a decade. The numbers can't be taken on face value, given the cushy time slot, but in its second week it had an excellent 11.6 million viewers.

Some heavily promoted new series are having an impact while others are not. Pan Am started strong on Sunday with 10.9 million viewers. The season's other sixties-era drama, The Playboy Club, looks like a dud, ratings-wise. This week's second episode drew just 3.9 million, down from the already disappointing five million it got in for its premiere episode. The door may soon close on this Playboy Club if the expensively made series continues to decline.

On a side note, the Parents Television Council is gloating about the damp squib that is The Playboy Club and boasts that it persuaded seven advertisers to pull out of running ads on the series. The head of the PTC declared in a statement, "What has been clear to everyone outside of NBC must now be clear even to those inside NBC: The Playboy Club is a commercial disaster and must be removed from the airwaves. We call for the network to cancel this degrading and sexualizing program immediately." Well, it turns out it's more hokey than hot, so viewers are making their own decisions about that.

For some observers of the numbers, there is probably good news in the apparent, slow decline of some reality shows. Dancing With the Stars pulled in 19 million viewers, but the most significant number is this: The show dropped about 11 per cent in total viewers from last season and 22 per cent in adults 18 to 49 years old, the demographic that advertisers crave. For some reason, the opportunity to watch justice-seeking ranter Nancy Grace dance and strut seemed to be off-putting for some viewers.

In the matter of Canada, it is too early to tell whether CTV, Global or the Rogers stations have succeeded in buying the hit shows. In some instances, competing shows on the U.S. network air on the same channel in Canada, and there is still some action to come. For instance, Fox's House, which airs on Global here, won't return until next week. We'll look at all that later.

So, what's going on is this: The opening 10-day ratings war of this season seems to justify the existence of so many comedies. And undermine the belief that bigger is better: Terra Nova and The X-Factor, for all the promotion, look passé. Viewers are looking for laughs, not a big-budget dinosaur drama or a drawn-out freak show featuring terrible singers and self-absorbed judges.

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The Harmony Game: The Making of Bridge Over Troubled Water (TMN, Movie Central, 9 p.m.) will, for some people, be of far more interest than anything airing tonight. It's nostalgia heaven if you think fondly of the late 1960s and early 1970s. The doc chronicles the making of the Simon & Garfunkel album that was life-changing for many of the millions who bought it and treasured it. There are stories about the origins of specific songs and some discussion of how the friendship between Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel was put under severe strain.

Check local listings.

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