A by-the-numbers look at the ups and downers of fall TV

What’s the main reason ABC finds itself up Nielsen’s creek this season? Is it the (a) lack of new hits; (b) fizzling older comedies; or (c) relentless reliance on a format awfully similar to this intro?

If you sighed ”c,” you win: Ratings for Who Wants to Be a Millionaire tumbled more than 40 percent on average from last year. Suddenly, the net that couldn’t get enough lifelines now practically hangs by one after shedding 20 percent of its audience from 2000-01. ”We were number one 18 months ago,” says ABC exec VP Jeff Bader. ”And because Millionaire was four nights of our schedule, we essentially have to replace our top four shows. That’s really hard.” You don’t have to convince ABC cochair Stu Bloomberg of that: On Jan. 7, the network parted ways with the struggling programming poohbah and tapped exec VP Susan Lyne to take over his duties.

To be fair, this season hasn’t been easy for anyone. First came the delay due to Sept. 11, and then it was clear the national zeitgeist had somehow changed. ”Bizarre, bizarre, bizarre,” sums up CBS exec VP Kelly Kahl of the fall. ”No two days were the same. It was a tragic way to start the season and then the unpredictability of it brought something new.”

Did it ever. With America in comfort-seeking mode, CBS scored big with nostalgic specials featuring Carol Burnett and Lucille Ball (29.8 million tuned in for Burnett’s). Friends came roaring back against arch-rival Survivor, and returning faves like Everybody Loves Raymond and Law & Order racked up their best numbers yet. And just to prove how hard it’s been for a new series to find crazy success: The highest-rated rookie, NBC’s Inside Schwartz (with 15.1 million viewers), has already been canceled. Before we clean the slate for midseason, here’s the rest of our network-by-network analysis of the 2001-02 TV season.

No. 1 in total viewers; tied for No. 2 among 18-49-year-olds

THE GOOD Who won the Monday night fight between ABC’s Millionaire and NBC’s Weakest Link? Oddly enough: CBS’ The King of Queens (No. 17), Yes, Dear (No. 18), Everybody Loves Raymond (No. 4), and Becker (No. 8), which all got ratings boosts. ”We hoped those audiences would cannibalize each other and people would look to us for comedy,” says CBS’ Kahl. ”By and large, they have.” On Tuesdays, people did their patriotic duty by watching JAG (up from last year’s No. 30 to No. 11); Judging Amy continued to rule its slot at No. 12, while rookie legal drama The Guardian made a convincing case at No. 22. ”We found a show with a very appealing star,” says Kahl of Guardian‘s Simon Baker. ”We felt it fit nicely between JAG and Amy, and it gave us the opportunity to get younger than we were with 60 Minutes II.” On Thursdays, CSI scoped out 4.7 million extra viewers to hit No. 2 (its best showing yet), and Survivor, though fading, staked out No. 5. ”We all knew it would cool at some point,” says Kahl, ”and if we’ve cooled down to where we have 20 million viewers, we’re very happy.”