U.S. News

At Networks, Gloves Are Already Off

Bill Carter|The New York Times

The new TV season kicks off on Monday night — and it’s sure not starting with a whimper.

In what several network executives described as the most intensely competitive opening night in recent memory, each of the four major networks has something to prove and a lot on the line.

“It is one heck of a way to start off the season, there’s no question,” said Kelly Kahl, the chief program scheduler for CBS.

One result of the pileup of popular entries on Monday, he predicted, will be even closer examination of the effect of delayed viewing of shows recorded on digital devices.  CBS’s research now estimates that 38 percent of American households have DVRs, up from 33 percent last September.

“I think we’re going to get waves and waves of numbers, but we’re really going to have to temper our read a little bit until the dust settles,” Mr. Kahl said.

Established hits will return, including “House” on Fox, “Two and a Half Men” on CBS, and the latest edition of “Dancing With the Stars” on ABC — featuring among its new cast the potent tabloid favorites Bristol Palin and Mike Sorrentino (a k a “The Situation”) from the hot MTV show “Jersey Shore.”

The night will also introduce a sampling of some of the most prominent new series.  Those include “Hawaii Five-0” on CBS , already being discussed as the likely top-rated newcomer of the season, and the rural soap opera “Lone Star” on Fox, which that network believes can emerge as a sleeper hit.

But the pressure to make a splash on Monday night will be heaviest at NBC.  That struggling network is leading with the highest new card in its possession — and, thanks to sensational international sales, already the most valuable: a serial drama touched by science fiction called “The Event.” NBC believed enough in the show to place it smack in the middle of this ferociously tough night, at 9 p.m.

One reason for placing it on Monday was to take advantage of the big audience (especially of men) on Sunday nights to watch NBC’s N.F.L. games.  The network wants to use that platform to promote “The Event,” coming just one night later.

N.F.L. games have begun the season as hotter attractions than ever: the NBC game between Washington and Dallas on Sept. 12 drew NBC’s biggest audience ever for a Sunday night game, more than 25 million viewers.  And Sunday’s game, the Giants versus the Colts, featuring the Manning brothers on opposing teams, was expected to be equally big.

(NBC, a unit of General Electric , is the parent of CNBC.)

The introduction of HD sets and the increasing use of social media sites like Facebook and Twitter have apparently vastly increased interest in all live events, especially sports.  Brad Adgate, the senior vice president for research at Horizon Media, cited a Nielsen survey showing that viewing of sports events was 21 percent higher on HD sets than on standard TVs.

Steve Sternberg, who writes a blog covering the television business called The Sternberg Report said, “N.F.L. Football is the only sport that can still effectively promote a prime-time lineup.”

So that part of NBC’s strategy for “The Event” seems sound — except for one small detail. The other formidable competitor it must face Monday night may have even more appeal to football viewers: “Monday Night Football” on ESPN.

“You could make a case that ESPN could prove to be the toughest competitor of all on the night,” Mr. Adgate said, noting that on two occasions last season, the cable channel brought in more than 20 million viewers for its Monday games.

So Monday night games may take away as many viewers as the Sunday night games help to bring in — at least until the “Event” numbers from delayed viewing are factored in.  NBC executives are trying to take what Angela Bromstad, the president of NBC prime-time entertainment and head of the NBC Universal production studio, which owns the show, called “a measured approach” to initial results.

“The DVR numbers are going to be very, very important,” she said.

But those international sales have only increased NBC’s need for “The Event” to be some approximation of a hit.  The series has already been sold in a remarkable 200 countries, making the show a potential goldmine for NBC, but only if it can stay on the air.

That level of financial commitment reflects the continuing power of big-idea or “high-concept” television — represented by shows like “Lost” and “24” — even after recent failures like “Flash Forward” and “V.”

Preston Beckman, executive vice president for strategic program planning at the Fox network, said he thought NBC had marketed “The Event” well and predicted a strong opening.  But he said that after one big week last season for “V” on ABC, “they looked around and said: ‘Where did everybody go?’ ”

Mr. Sternberg suggested that if the show could make it through the gantlet it faces at the start of this season, NBC should consider adopting the “24” model, delaying the second season to begin a year from January, “running it uninterrupted through May” without repeated episodes.

The one thing that “The Event” — and the other new hopefuls on Monday — can ill afford is a complete ratings disaster out of the gate, or as Mr. Kahl put it, thinking of that especially big Monday competitor wearing shoulder pads: “You just don’t want to get sacked on the first night.”