As if we needed more proof that this is the golden age of prime-time TV, not only is the schedule packed with juicy shows, but certain key hours are flooded with scads of new viewers. And while that's set up some hotly competitive head-to-head programming smackdowns, one network's gains haven't necessarily translated into major losses for its competitors. (In fact, excluding the fledgling CW network, prime-time viewership is up 4 percent this fall.) ''The audience is coming from other places,'' says CBS senior exec VP Kelly Kahl. ''The level of shows the past few years has really upped the ante.'' Here, a look at some of the biggest battles on television this season and who's likely to come out on top.
Sundays, 10 p.m.
CBS' Without a Trace (15.1 million) is the top scripted offering in this hour even though it's lost 5.7 million viewers since moving from Thursdays. Over at ABC, Brothers & Sisters (13.4 million) is among the season's most-watched new programs despite the fact that it's fumbling more than a third of Desperate Housewives' audience. Nonetheless, ABC execs are sensing momentum for the star-laden dysfunctional-family drama. ''We've heard a lot more people talking about it,'' ABC exec VP Jeff Bader says. ''It's really finding its groove.'' Says Kahl, ''They've got a solid show, and we've got a solid show.''
Winner Too close to call. Brothers should keep climbing as could Trace once it's no longer delayed by NFL games on CBS.
Mondays, 9 p.m.
The aptly named Heroes has saved NBC from another rotten fall, and in the process has become the season's top new series, with 14.4 million viewers. ''The surprise is how big it's gotten,'' says Mitch Metcalf, NBC's exec VP of programming. ''When you see a show growing in late October, that's [a sign that] people are liking it and telling their friends.'' Meanwhile, CBS has held steady with the one-two punch of Two and a Half Men (15.4 million) and The New Adventures of Old Christine(12.4 million). ''Any time you see a strong show pop up on another network,'' Kahl reasons, ''you're lucky if it's against your strongest shows.'' True enough, but at this point, anything on NBC that creeps up on CBS' radar and helps it win among that coveted younger demographic is a victory for the Peacock.
Winner For being as indestructible as that cheerleader, Heroes.
Stars & Stripes
Tuesdays, 8 p.m.
Dancing With the Stars (20 million) has never been bigger growing 8 percent from last year, and cha-cha-cha-ing over competing NCIS (15 million), which has lost 2 million viewers. While CBS remains sanguine ''Its audience likes it no matter what else is on,'' Kahl says this is clearly Stars' year. Along with Housewives and Grey's Anatomy, it helped formerly moribund ABC claim the top spot among 18- to 49-year-olds for the first six weeks of the season something no network has done since NBC managed the trick seven years ago.
Winner Stars. For making fox-trots insanely and bizarrely popular.
Wednesdays, 9 p.m.
Viewers have spoken, and they like their mysteries solved, thank you very much. Lost (17.6 million deeply confused fans) has misplaced 1.1 million viewers this year, allowing Criminal Minds (16.8 million nonconfused fans) to defeat it for the first time ever on Nov. 1 (and again on Nov. 8, when Lost's fall finale aired). ''While the serialized shows are in vogue, you don't see them picking up viewers in year 2 and year 3 [like Minds has],'' Kahl says. This band of Criminals should be able to rest easy for a while: ABC is benching Lost for 12 weeks to premiere Day Break, yet another serialized drama (as if we're not over those). And in a bit of news that will come as a surprise to precisely no one, there is little overlap between devotees of Mandy Patinkin and American Idol, which bows in this slot Jan. 16.
Winner For picking the pocket of a phenomenon, Criminal Minds.
America (Ferrera) the Beautiful
Thursdays, 8 p.m. and 9 p.m.
At 8 p.m., ABC's Ugly Betty (14.2 million) is beating Survivor (15.6 million) in buzz and momentum, if not numbers. (Survivor is down 2.2 million from last fall.) And in the same hour, NBC's comedy combo My Name Is Earl (9.2 million) and The Office (8.6 million) is struggling to convert critical drool into viewers. ''It's a battle every hour on Thursday,'' Metcalf says. And nowhere more so than at 9 p.m., where TV's hottest show Grey's Anatomy is trumping the heretofore unstoppable CSI, 22 million to 21.7 million viewers. ''Grey's is our game-changer,'' Bader says. (The network will put that claim to the test when Men in Trees, starring Anne Heche, relocates to 10 p.m. from its desolate Friday-night berth, replacing hiatus-bound Six Degrees.) And while the titans slugged it out, Fox's The O.C. collapsed, averaging just 3.6 million viewers. Worse, after a failed Wednesday-night tryout, it'll stay in TV's toughest time slot. ''When we set the schedule, we didn't know ABC was going to make the moves they did,'' Fox exec VP Preston Beckman says. ''We were hoping there was a core audience that would watch it regardless of time period.''
Winner A staggering hit plus a hot newcomer equals (Mc)Dreamy numbers for ABC.