Before you get too far into this column, I'm going to start with an admission: Some people in the TV business won't think it's very fair.
After all, they'll say, the fall TV season has been disrupted by everything from the presidential debates to baseball playoffs and the World Series. And though the season officially started Sept. 24, some network shows didn't debut until last week.
No matter. It's time to start proclaiming the winners and losers of this latest TV season, five weeks after it started.
Keep in mind: Success or failure is judged by each show's ratings with the viewers that advertisers like (usually the 18-to-49 demographic) or some other moneymaking method, like syndication sales or Netflix.
"It's all cyclical; everybody's up for a while and then they're down again," said Bill Gorman, an analyst for the ratings website TVbythenumbers.com, who swats aside most critical analysis of TV shows, predicting survival chances mostly on each program's 18-to-49 ratings.
Stacey Lynn Schulman, chief of research for the trade group TVB, said a record number of viewers are using DVRs to shift when they watch shows, with 15 to 30 percent of viewers shifting shows to different times on the same day an episode airs.
The result is everything from a glut of shows on Sundays — giving viewers lots of time to catch up during the week — to a slow pace of cancellations, as network executives wait for a week's worth of DVR-viewing data before they move on a program.
And Marc Berman of TVMediaInsights.com said the biggest problem is most new shows this fall aren't big hits or big failures.
"Nothing has broken out," said Berman, noting highly hyped series such as Nashville, Last Resort and Vegas haven't caught fire, while widely snubbed shows such as The Neighbors and Revolution haven't bottomed out. "A lot of new shows are just sitting there. So you show some patience."
Not me. I'm picking Fall TV's winners and losers right here, right now.
NBC and The Voice
Good news for the formerly last-place network: NBC is the only broadcaster to grow ratings among viewers ages 18 to 49 from last season, now No. 1 over the past four weeks. That's mostly thanks to NFL football on Sundays and The Voice on Mondays and Tuesdays. "This proves one series can ignite a network," said Berman, who wondered if moderately successful shows such as Ryan Murphy's The New Normal and Matthew Perry's Go On could survive long without The Voice's lead-in audience. I'm thinking, um, not.
Speaking of pro football, a look at the first four weeks of ratings shows six of the Top 10 shows among key viewers are football broadcasts on NBC, CBS and Fox. It may be the last place TV still draws a big crowd.
Surprise! It's the highest-rated drama among the 18-to-49 crowd in its ninth season. Small wonder ABC is letting creator Shonda Rhimes put anything else on air she wants; it sorely needs whatever lightning Grey's has caught in a bottle.
The only scripted shows in the Top 10 for the 18-to-49 viewers so far are comedies: Modern Family and The Big Bang Theory. Look at the Top 20, and there are just two dramas (Grey's and NCIS) among comedies such as 2 Broke Girls, The Simpsons and Two and a Half Men. Young people, it seems, would rather laugh than cry.
What are the shows people are buzzing about this fall? Cable series: The Walking Dead (AMC). Sons of Anarchy (FX). Here's Comes Honey Boo Boo (TLC).
ABC's The Neighbors and Fox's Ben and Kate? Not so much.
ABC, CBS and Fox
These networks saw declines in their 18-to-49 audience, with ABC dipping 11 percent, CBS down 18 percent and Fox sinking 25 percent, according to Gorman. Their bets aren't paying off.
Though established comedies are doing well, new comedies aren't working as well as advertised. Fox's The Mindy Project and Ben and Kate have struggled with a situation made worse by baseball pre-emptions; ABC's The Neighbors sits in the middle of ratings, despite airing just before the highest-rated scripted show on TV, Modern Family. And the less said about dreck like NBC's Guys With Kids, the better.
In a season where networks are showing unheard-of patience, two shows which managed to get cut anyway occupy a special level of unfortunate: CBS's walking Italian joke Made in Jersey, and NBC's trained- monkey showcase, Animal Practice.
Shows older people like
Shows that draw big audiences, but less than 25 percent of them are ages 18 to 49: Dancing With the Stars, Castle, Person of Interest and CBS's Vegas.
That means Vegas, for example, has drawn an average 12.5 million viewers each night over the past four weeks, but just 2.5 million among the 18-to-49 demo. Analyst Brad Adgate of Horizon Media said its viewers' median age is 61. So if there's a few denture cream ads in between scenes with Dennis Quaid and Michael Chiklis, don't say I didn't warn you.
New York-based analyst Brad Adgate provided most of the ratings figures used in this column.
SEASON PREMIERE The Secret Life of the American Teenager, 8 p.m., ABC Family: Amy wants some "alone time" with Ricky, but his birth mother shows up and needs a place to stay.
All Together Now: A Celebration of Service, 8 p.m., NBC: Former presidents Jimmy Carter, George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush get together for a special highlighting the importance of volunteering in your community. Because it's not like you're going to get paid for it in this economy.