Last fall, the networks introduced a record 34 new series to prime time with corporate confidence that verged on bravado. Cops who rocked, students who sang, enviro-adventures, and medical documentaries would all compete for an audience craving innovation and revolution. ”Tried and true equals dead and buried,” crowed NBC’s Brandon Tartikoff.
Three months later, heads are being scratched, wounds are being licked, and the only things dead and buried are most of those new shows. At its halfway point, the 1990-91 season has yielded exactly one hit — ABC’s America’s Funniest People — and 33 not-yets, not-quites, not-tonights, and not-if-it-were-the-only- show-on-TV-and-the-video-store-had-nothing-but-Ghost Dads. ”It was a terribly self-destructive fall,” says ABC entertainment chief Robert Iger. ”There were way too many new shows and way too many shows returning in new time periods. The result was utter confusion.”
ABC, NBC, and CBS are now in their closest race since 1965, and network executives are pondering what went wrong and how to fix it. Each network is trying to attract a demographically desirable young audience and achieve mainstream success as well, and Fox, going through a rough expansion, is hoping to establish itself as a legitimate fourth (not just fourth-place) network. The contest so far:
ABC has won the night on the strength of Monday Night Football, but in the postseason, men — and momentum — may switch to CBS’ surging lineup. Major Dad, Murphy Brown, and Designing Women have never been more popular, and the Burt Reynolds comedy, Evening Shade, is poised to enter the top 30. NBC’s Fresh Prince of Bel-Air hasn’t been the smash many predicted, but it’s still the fall’s highest-rated new comedy. ”We’re extremely pleased with it,” says Perry Simon, NBC’s executive vice president in charge of prime-time programs. ”It’s the No. 1 show among teenagers on any night, on any network.”
NBC wins with Matlock, In the Heat of the Night, and the growing success Law & Order — a trio of book-’em-and-cook-’em crime dramas with tremendous appeal to older viewers. Although still a top 10 show, ABC’s Roseanne has sagged since last season. Iger blames the decline on increased competition from CBS — ”They’re throwing things like Field of Dreams at us” — and on a weak lead-in, Head of the Class, which will be replaced by the Randy Quaid-Jonathan Winters comedy Davis Rules. Can ABC win back the night? ”We’re going to try,” says Iger, ”but it’s going to be very difficult.”
With a popular comedy lineup that includes The Wonder Years, the rising hit Doogie Howser, M.D., and the modest success Married People, ABC should own the night, but the disastrous performance of the musical Cop Rock, which ends its run this month, has turned Wednesday into a horse race. So far, Cop Rock‘s failure has benefited NBC’s Hunter the most. ”None of us expected it to do this well on Wednesdays,” says NBC’s Simon. ”We’re delighted.” On CBS, after a decade of 8 p.m. programming disasters that drew more flies than viewers, the news show 48 Hours is getting a chance. At 10 p.m., hopes for the ensemble drama WIOU have been tempered by shaky ratings.
NBC’s comedies, led by the indefatigable Cheers, still dominate the night, but not with the bulldozer force they once exerted. Fox’s The Simpsons has raided Cosby‘s audience, and Grand may be TV’s most disliked series: Every week, 10 million viewers make a point of turning it off. NBC’s slight erosion has helped CBS woo younger viewers. ”The Flash can bring us a completely new audience,” entertainment chief Jeff Sagansky said earlier this season, ”if it works.” It’s working: CBS’ superhero action drama is now a top 25 hit among young men.
This season, ABC retooled Family Matters to focus on nerdy Steve Urkel and turned it into the hottest show in its lineup of kid-oriented comedies. NBC competed by moving three established shows — Quantum Leap, Night Court, and Midnight Caller — to Friday. The result: They’re all hurting. ”These are quality shows, but the ratings haven’t been acceptable,” says NBC’s Simon. CBS is also making changes: Over My Dead Body is out, and the network’s rescheduling of Uncle Buck was a disaster. ”We had hoped Buck would have a strong kids’ following,” says CBS senior vice president Peter Tortorici. ”That didn’t prove out too well.”
With baby boomers watching cable, renting videos, or going out, network wisdom has consigned Saturday programming to viewers who are too young or too old to leave home. That’s why NBC’s senior-appeal comedies, The Golden Girls and Empty Nest, have been the night’s only big hits for years; for other series, including Parenthood and Working It Out, Saturday has been a boneyard. This fall, ABC has tried to lure 18- to 49-year-olds and made what Iger calls ”very modest” gains. ”Clearly, the success we’ve had demographically (with Twin Peaks) has resulted in a more positive economic climate for us. But our approach with China Beach was incorrect — it was too intense for Saturday night.” CBS has had an even rougher time; its E.A.R.T.H. Force lasted two weeks, and Wiseguy and Broken Badges aren’t doing much better. ”I don’t think it’s hopeless,” says CBS’ Tortorici. ”We just need to be more sensitive to what people are looking for.” For now, the night is NBC’s, and Simon says ”creative adjustments” on The Fanelli Boys and American Dreamer will make the lineup even stronger.
The night usually goes to CBS — in its 23rd season, 60 Minutes has become TV’s No. 2 show, and Murder, She Wrote is still beloved by older viewers. ABC’s America’s Funniest… hour is a big draw, and Fox, almost a nonentity on other nights this season, can smile through its growing pains at the continued success of Married With Children and In Living Color and the growth of Get a Life. That leaves NBC with no pulse; this fall, Hull High and Lifestories didn’t even cast a shadow. Next month, NBC will try news shows in the hope that Real Life with Jane Pauley can snap its losing streak.
Executives at the networks agree that one hit could make the difference between first and second place, so in early 1991, the networks will air 30 new series in search of bottled lightning, including CBS’ Good Sports, a sitcom about broadcasters with Farrah Fawcett and Ryan O’Neal; NBC’s vampire saga Dark Shadows; Fox’s Married With Children spin-off Top of the Heap; and ABC’s adaptations of the movies True Believer and (after much delay) Look Who’s Talking.
”If we do our jobs right,” says CBS’ Tortorici, ”the ratings will reflect it. What can we do to give people more of a reason to watch us? We can put on better shows.”