Here’s where the TV season gets interesting. It used to be that the networks rolled out all their new shows in the fall and then just sat back and waited for the big ratings to come in. When some new series or other didn’t do very well, the programmers would just look around and shove in one they’d rejected earlier.
Not anymore. Mid-season is now the time when the television industry — not just the networks, but PBS and cable as well — does its darnedest to liven things up, to woo back viewers disenchanted with the fall offerings; it’s the time when television takes its biggest creative chances.
The second season, with its go-for-broke risks and its shrewd fine-tuning, has thus become as important as the one in the fall, and sometimes livelier. Articulating the current approach, ABC entertainment president Robert Iger says, ”In mid-season, you can discover where your needs are, where your opportunities are, what are the best shows you really have.” The big winners of recent mid-seasons include The Wonder Years, Twin Peaks, The Simpsons — in short, some of TV’s most interesting programming.
What will be the breakthrough shows this time around? Family Dog? Davis Rules? Make your educated guess after reading Entertainment Weekly’s guide to TV’s newest hopefuls.
In the fall, Fox’s prime-time schedule grew to five nights, but everything else about the four-year-old network seemed to shrink: its quality, its strength as an alternative to the networks, and its potential. Although 1990’s bright lights — The Simpsons and In Living Color — didn’t dim, everything else went wrong. Fox’s Monday movie barely materialized. Production delays mired the weekday show Peter Pan & the Pirates in rerun hell. And Fox’s lineup of 10 new series yielded not a single hit. The strongest, Get a Life, ranks 63rd.
”The truth is, when we put together this schedule, we put everything we could find on the air,” Fox entertainment chief Peter Chernin confessed recently. ”We’ve been scrambling ever since to come up with some backup shows.” This spring, Fox is betting on five:
NBC isn’t the only network watching the ratings for Dark Shadows; if the vampire saga takes off, Fox is ready with a Transylvanian twist of its own. The stars of Blood Ties are a whole community of vampires whose family loyalties and blood feuds — as written by Dynasty creators Richard and Esther Shapiro — could turn supernatural melodrama into a TV fixation. Fox executives, notoriously wary of dramatic series, haven’t committed themselves to airing the show yet, but if they like what they see in the pilot, Ties should try to take a bite out of the competition starting in late spring.
Recession? What recession? Fantasy Park hopes to make a mint by giving ordinary people a shot at the lifestyles of the rich and famous. The gimmick of this half-hour quasi-game show is that viewers compete for a shot at mega- prizes by calling a 900 number; if they don’t win, they can still exult or seethe over the success of those who do get a chance to compete on the show. The saving grace of this series may be the jaw-dropping scope of its rewards: a six-pack of classic cars, a Hawaiian condo, and a year’s unlimited access to a Ticketron outlet installed in your home.
The Last Hurrah
The two mainstays of Fox’s schedule — high school series (Parker Lewis Can’t Lose, 21 Jump Street) and documentaries (Cops, America’s Most Wanted) — are finally united in one show that may turn the seniors of Illinois’ Glenbard West High into the most famous ordinary teenagers in America. The Last Hurrah follows the senior class through homecoming-queen elections and college applications. If viewers approve, the show’s cameras will invade other high school halls next season.
Top of the Heap
(Sundays, 9:30-10 p.m.)
Fox’s sitcom about father-and-son get-rich-quick schemers (Joe Bologna and Matt LeBlanc) is being promoted as a spin-off of Married With Children. Not true, but since Heap comes from the same team of producer-writers, the network promises that several members of the Bundy clan will be wandering through the show in guest appearances. Look for it in March.
The cast for the pilot, still in development, includes Mandy Patinkin, Bob Balaban, Mary Kay Place, and Ghost’s Tony Goldwyn, and this New York-based comedy about the residents of a large apartment building seeks a new angle on angst by improvising it. On paper, it aims higher than the rest of Fox’s lineup; in practice, viewers will see for themselves in late spring.