They worried that depression over the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks would drive people away from prime-time TV. Instead, based on ratings from the season's opening week, the opposite is true.
"Obviously, none of us knew what to expect," NBC entertainment president Jeff Zucker said. "Clearly, the established shows have returned in a major way, and I think that's a relief to those who program television and probably a relief to the country as well that they can see their familiar friends."
Zucker chose his last word for its double meaning. NBC's "Friends" was one of the week's notable successes, with 31 million people tuning in Thursday to see which of the three female characters was pregnant.
Prime-time viewing in general was up 4 percent over the last two years during the first few nights of the season, said top CBS researcher David Poltrack.
"People are spending more time at home," Poltrack said. "People are seeking the comfortable. All of the traditionally strong hit shows got off to strong starts."
These included dramas like ABC's "The Practice," NBC's "Law and Order" and "ER" and CBS' "JAG" and "CSI: Crime Scene Investigation." Comedies "Everybody Loves Raymond" on CBS and "Frasier" on NBC also did well.
Indeed, one rival network executive likened "Friends" to comfort food in troubled time and admitted he watched it instead of his network's fare Thursday night.
Wednesday's premiere of the latest "Star Trek" series, called "Enterprise," gave UPN its best ratings night since the network launched in 1995 with the predecessor, "Star Trek: Voyager." The original "Star Trek" dates back more than 30 years.
"I thought that people would come back," said Jeff Bader, ABC entertainment executive vice president. "The question was how quickly they would come back. They came back rather quickly."
Executives were fearful their promotional efforts would be derailed by the four nights when broadcasters ran news reports commercial-free. Some new series, like NBC's "Crossing Jordan" and CBS' "The Education of Max Bickford," drew the curious despite fewer promos.
Still, Zucker said, "it's probably harder for new shows to break through."
It's tough to draw conclusions about whether viewers have a greater taste for comedies or dramas. And networks warn against giving too much weight to one week's ratings, since viewers are known to sample new shows and quickly flee.
Reality shows did poorly last week, particularly Fox's "Love Cruise," NBC's "Lost" and CBS' fading "The Amazing Race." Some analysts have suggested that with such dramatic real news, faux reality television would suffer.
"Part of the problem is there's too much of this stuff," Zucker said, "and that was going to be a problem no matter what happened in the world."
The true fate of reality TV won't be known until Oct. 11, when CBS debuts the third edition of "Survivor."
One eye-opening loser last week was ABC's "ho Wants to Be a Millionaire," which faded badly against tough competition. ABC expects its viewers to return after viewers sample something else, Bader said.
As in any TV season, some new shows are already living on borrowed time. "Wolf Lake" seems out of step with CBS' audience. Ellen DeGeneres and Emeril Lagasse are unlikely to overcome poor reviews and initial viewer disinterest in their sitcoms.
Written By DAVID BAUDER © MMI The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed