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NBC is facing some serious ratings problems

NBC late-night host Conan O'Brien joked during the Emmy Awards 10 days ago that "NBC's season starts and ends tomorrow."

A little more than one week into the season, NBC executives aren't laughing. It is just as premature to judge a network season as it is to judge a young quarterback like J.P. Losman after a few games. But the start of NBC's season is worse than the start of the Bills' season.

"It is early," said Jim Toellner, the general manager of NBC's Buffalo affiliate, WGRZ. "We're still hopeful, but I'm a little concerned. Fortunately, the 10 p.m. block (and news lead-in) still seems strong."

NBC's results on WGRZ illustrate why Toellner is concerned. The critically acclaimed comedy "My Name is Earl" was a big winner in its debut, but its second episode Tuesday faced ABC's "Commander in Chief."

The rating for the premiere of "Surface" on Channel 2 was decent, but it slipped about 25 percent to a 6.3 in its second airing Monday. The premiere of the Martha Stewart version of "The Apprentice," which was kept from critics, was nothing for the letter-writing Stewart to write home about. It earned a weak 6.1 rating here. Things were so bad for Martha that producer Mark Burnett is looking for help, sending tonight's episode for review. I'd rather watch Bills game films.

Martha's weakness hurt the premiere of the testosterone Pentagon series, "E Ring" (7.3), with Benjamin Bratt and Dennis Hopper. The Friday premiere of the feel-good reality cryfest "Three Wishes" had a decent but disappointing 7.0 rating here and it appeals primarily to an older audience that is less attractive to advertisers. It didn't help the premiere of the series set in a fertility clinic, "Inconceivable" (5.7).

NBC got even more bad news from second-year series "The Office," which lost half of its lead-in from "Earl." The first half-hour of the season premiere of the revamped "Joey" (6.2) was in a virtual tie with UPN's critically acclaimed "Everybody Hates Chris." Donald Trump's version of "The Apprentice" (7.1) delivered a poor lead-in to "ER," which lost its time slot battle to the premiere of "Criminal Minds" and now will face "Without a Trace." While Trump's show helped NBC maintain its Thursday dominance for a few seasons, it also prevented NBC from airing scripted series there that had a better chance of long-term success.

"West Wing," which got clobbered nationally in its new 8 p.m. Sunday time slot, had a 7.4 on Channel 2, higher than every new NBC series except "Earl."

It may take four weeks to know if things are as bad as they first look for NBC. It is not as if this is entirely unexpected. Kevin O'Reilly, NBC's Entertainment President, low-balled expectations in July during a news conference with television critics in Los Angeles. He also announced a few midseason programs that would replace some fall losers. They included "Windfall," a drama about lottery winners, from Grand Island's Laurie McCarthy.

* The second season of UPN's mystery series "Veronica Mars" (9 tonight, WNLO) has something in common with ABC's megahit "Desperate Housewives" besides the affluent setting. After last season's mystery, the show has to come up with another compelling case.

The new mystery will have to augment the stories about the desperate antics and class wars between the high school seniors in the seaside community of Neptune, where Veronica reminds us "nothing happens accidentally."

A newcomer to the series tonight might feel a little like a senior who has transferred to Neptune and doesn't know who is dating whom or where the bathroom is located. The producers enlist CBS newscaster (and wife of Viacom chairman Les Moonves) Julie Chen to help explain the past. She interviews Veronica's dad, Keith Mars (Enrico Colantoni), about the book he has written about last year's case involving the murder of Veronica's best friend, Lilly Kane. Meanwhile, Veronica (Kristen Bell) is seeking a normal life as a waitress before she is enlisted to solve a minor mystery involving drug testing and sports teams.

"Can't you talk on the phone and paint your nails like other girls," asks Veronica's dad, the town's former sheriff.

The way the show is constructed -- with flashbacks and scenes that play out of order -- doesn't make it easy for a newcomer to follow. But Bell is as adorable and spunky as ever, the script has its usual share of dry humor and Charisma Carpenter ("Angel") adds sex appeal. Of course, Veronica's "normal" life crashes at the end when the promising start of the big, seasonlong mystery is revealed.

Review: 3 stars out of 4

* Inquiring minds want to know: When does "24" start on Fox? It was moved back a week to Jan. 15. It picks up 18 months after last season, with a presumably dead Jack Bauer (Kiefer Sutherland) living a new life with a woman, Diane (Connie Britton) and her son. Sean Astin and Jean Smart also join the series.

* WKBW's chief meteorologist, Mike Randall, has added the American Meteorological Society's Seal of Approval to his resume, which already includes the National Weather Association Seal of Approval. He is the only local TV weathercaster to have both seals, which means Channel 4's Don Paul has some explaining to do.

e-mail: apergament@buffnews.com

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