Why Did 'Fringe' Unravel? Blame It on the TV God

Some J.J. Abrams series that had higher-rated premieres than the heavily hyped
Some J.J. Abrams series that had higher-rated premieres than the heavily hyped "Fringe": from left, "Lost," "Six Degrees"and "Alias." (By Mario Perez -- Abc By Scott Garfield -- Abcby Eric Liebowitz -- Abc)
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Thursday, September 11, 2008; Page C07

Is the Church of J.J. losing members?

Perhaps the most highly hyped new series of the 2008-09 TV season, the Ohmygodit'sJ.J.Abrams'snewseries! "Fringe," attracted only 9.1 million viewers in its premiere Tuesday night.

Fox noted it was the network's most watched drama premiere in two years, if you exclude most of its drama premieres of the past two years. Actually, what Fox said was that "Fringe" was its highest-rated drama series debut in two years "excluding premieres following sports and 'American Idol.' "

Since September 2006, all but three Fox dramas ("K-Ville," "Canterbury's Law" and "Drive") have launched after a sports telecast or "Idol."

The launch of "Fringe" did not score a bigger audience than the 2006 kickoff of Fox's "Standoff" -- you know, the drama about the really hot police crisis negotiators who can't keep their hands off each other, played by Ron Livingston and the inexplicably cast Rosemarie DeWitt. But because that one debuted on Sept. 5 and "Fringe" debuted on Sept. 9, "Fringe" squeaked in under that two-year cutoff.

Fox noted in its ratings news release that "Fringe" had debuted before the start of the television season, when viewers aren't really so focused on the new shows. Note that "Standoff" started even earlier than "Fringe." That said, "Standoff" had the advantage of a "House" lead-in. "Fringe" had to self-start at 8 p.m. without a lead-in feeding its viewers because the TV God told Fox that if it did use a lead-in, He would visit a plague of locusts on the lot to devour all the expensive landscaping. Oh, wait, no He didn't! Fox came up with the 8 p.m. scheduling all on its own!

Just for fun, let's compare the 9.1 million who gathered to watch the first episode of "Fringe" with the numbers from some other J.J. Abrams series unveilings, shall we?

When "Lost" opened on ABC in September '04, nearly 19 million tuned in.

And let's not forget that at the time, ABC was the cellar-dweller, the No. 4 network overall and among the 18-to-49-year-old viewers networks target because advertisers covet them. Fox, on the other hand, is king of the hill -- the country's No. 1 network overall and No. 1 among 18-to-49-year-olds.

The second season of "Lost" opened with an average of more than 23 million tuned in. Its third-season starter logged nearly 19 million viewers and its fourth more than 16 million.

In fact, no original episode of "Lost" has averaged as small a crowd as did "Fringe" in its much-ballyhooed unveiling. The smallest audience for an original episode of "Lost" to date -- 10.7 million viewers -- was May 1 this year, when the networks were getting things back in order after the writers' strike.

Getting back to our list, "Six Degrees" premiered on ABC in September '06 to a crowd of 12.6 million. Granted, the show enjoyed a wonderful lead-in in the form of the "Grey's Anatomy" season debut.

"What About Brian," unveiling on ABC in April '06, clocked 12.5 million viewers, with a "Desperate Housewives" lead-in.

"Alias" said hi to the country in September '01, logging more than 15 million viewers on ABC after "A Bug's Life" on "The Wonderful World of Disney."

And way back in September 1998, on the new WB netlet, "Felicity" copped 7.1 million viewers. "Fringe" beat that one.

In fairness, Fox had to stream the premiere of "Fringe" -- I did mention it spent $10 million on the first episode, didn't I? -- on college campuses, simultaneously with the television premiere because the TV God warned that unless it did He would turn all the network's suits with titles of veep and up into pillars of salt. Oh wait, He didn't do that either! Fox came up with the college campus streaming idea on its own, too!

Ratings-tabulating Nielsen Media Research has just started measuring college student TV viewing in a very limited way, including students who are members of Nielsen families but are living in dorms, in its people-meter tabulations.

In fairness to "Fringe," the trade papers reported on their Web sites yesterday that all the above-mentioned J.J. Abrams series launched later in September, when people start watching TV more. Fox was compelled to start "Fringe" this early in the month because the TV God sent them a message via burning bush in which He threatened to . . .

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