Bret Watson and Dan Snierson
June 07, 1996 AT 04:00 AM EDT

A recap of the TV Season’s hits and misses

The results are in: The No. 1 catchphrase used by network honchos this season was, This is a cyclical business. How did NBC rise to the top rung after floundering in third as recently as 1994? Why did ABC, last year’s king, fall so precipitously from its throne to second place, and even third place in February and May sweeps? How did CBS, the onetime Tiffany network, suddenly become as tarnished as a pawnshop teapot? Five words: This is a cyclical business.

As pundits note with 20/20 hindsight, ABC rode fortune’s Ferris wheel to the top last season with a roster of aging shows and zero new hits. Third-place CBS fielded an even more decrepit lineup. By contrast, second-place NBC could point to freshman phenoms ER and Friends. Sure enough, come the 1995-96 season ABC still couldn’t buy a new hit but didn’t mind giving them away (see 3rd Rock From the Sun). NBC, by contrast, stole the crown by building on its dominance among 18- to 49-year-olds, winning that demographic — and tying its own 1988 record — for 26 consecutive weeks, and vaulting its entire Thursday lineup into the top eight. Taking a page from NBC’s roster of fresh-faced sitcoms, CBS tried to act young and hip — but instead came up with the now-canceled Can’t Hurry Love and Dweebs. CBS Entertainment president Leslie Moonves quickly reversed the trend, returning to the Eye’s core 25- to 54-year-old audience — and it worked: The network took second place for February and May sweeps. Although Fox didn’t produce a new winner either, still-building shows like The X-Files continued to abduct young viewers. In fact, Fox widened its lead over CBS among 18- to 49-year-olds and closed in on ABC.

Then again, this is a cyclical business. ”We don’t want to assume anything,” says NBC Entertainment president Warren Littlefield. ”The lesson of the last two seasons is that being on top doesn’t mean forever. We don’t take anything for granted.” After all, even Must See TV will eventually become Musty TV.

There’s another cause for concern: The combined ratings for the four major networks have sagged to an all-time low, thanks to cable and netlets UPN and the WB. And that trend may not be cyclical.

Winner: ‘3rd Rock from the Sun’
Losers: ABC Mid-season Comedies

An alien sitcom starring John Lithgow? Nah, said ABC execs, it’ll never work. So they passed on 3rd Rock From the Sun, only to watch NBC turn it into a huge mid-season hit (No. 22) — second only to the Peacock’s Thursday-night smash Boston Common. Meanwhile at ABC: The kiddiecom Aliens in the Family zapped out at No. 63; Meredith Baxter’s comeback bid, The Faculty, was outclassed at No. 66; the biracial Buddies befriended few at No. 68; and neither baby-boomer jocks (Champs, No. 20) nor scattershot sketches (The Dana Carvey Show, No. 27) could hold the generous lead-in of No. 5 Home Improvement. So why did viewers gravitate only toward 3rd Rock? ”On a buffet that’s very similar,” sums up exec producer Terry Turner, ”sometimes coleslaw is the most exciting when everything else is filet mignon.” 3rd Rock‘s rival-network success and five failed funnies definitely had ABC eating something — and it wasn’t steak.

Winner: ‘Cybill’
Losers: ‘High Society,’ ‘Good Company’

Last fall, NBC and CBS had the same battle plan: Let’s establish a comedy beachhead on Sunday night. The Peacock wheeled in Mad About You; CBS countered with Cybill. At first Mad (No. 29) routinely flattened Cybill‘s bubbly. But Golden Globe awards for Cybill Shepherd and her show spurred a slow build, until Cybill (No. 55) beat Mad seven times in a row. ”One week a rerun beat a first-run Mad About You,” boasts executive producer Jay Daniel. ”The network called and sent champagne.” In April, CBS returned Cybill to Monday, where Ab Fab wannabe High Society (No. 59) and Friends-in-an-ad-agency Good Company (No. 76) had failed. Next season, Cybill remains in the plum post-Murphy slot. Surely the show’s martini-sucking divorcees would drink to that.

Winner: ‘NewsRadio’
Loser: ‘Hope & Gloria’

Both shows were launched on NBC last season in comfy time slots. Both were tested this season on Sundays at 8:30. And both saw different results: Hope & Gloria (No. 99) couldn’t hold the Mad About You audience — leading to a demotion to Saturdays and then removal from the lineup — while NewsRadio (No. 35) easily held Mad‘s base and helped knock CBS’ Almost Perfect onto Monday nights. ”Sure, we were nervous,” says NewsRadio exec producer Paul Simms. ”But we seemed to hit a groove, and the move proved to be a confidence builder.” NBC is so confident, NewsRadio will anchor the new Must See Wednesday this fall. As for Hope & Gloria, ”it was segmented in its appeal, very female, and not enough of them,” says NBC’s Littlefield. So that explains why Lifetime is picking up the show.

Winner: CBS Saturday Night
Loser: NBC Saturday Night

”When CBS put us on Saturday night,” recalls Walker, Texas Ranger star Chuck Norris, ”I said, ‘Uh-oh, the Dead Zone.”’ Actually, that’s a fitting way to describe where the competition lay after the ailing network threw a quirky one-two-three combo of heartlandish dramas: Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman (No. 47), Touched by an Angel (No. 23), and Walker (No. 12). ”It was an odd place, trying to bridge Quinn healing people and Walker kicking their brains out,” notes Angel exec producer Martha Williamson. ”Dropping God in the middle was not a bad idea.” NBC execs weren’t exactly shouting hallelujah with its slate: The Home Court (No. 135), Hope & Gloria, Sisters (No. 116), and Malibu Shores (No. 133). Even hot prospect JAG fizzled at No. 80. ”Saturday was a disaster,” admits Littlefield, who will try three darker dramas there next season. ”We showed that we still are human at NBC.”

Winners: ‘Homicide,’ ‘Party of Five’
Loser: ‘Profit’

TV critics must wonder if anyone’s listening. Consider Fox’s Profit (No. 138): The twisted boardroom drama earned loud praise, but viewers fled — ratings plummeted halfway through each episode. (Axing the show, Fox Entertainment president John Matoian has since said, was the greatest disappointment of his career.) Sometimes, though, the critics’ message gets through: NBC’s acclaimed cop drama Homicide: Life on the Street (No. 71) delivered death blows to Friday-night CBS foes American Gothic (No. 109) and Picket Fences (No. 103), and the young orphans of Fox underdog Party of Five (No. 101) won a Golden Globe and kept gaining among younger viewers. Both series benefited from lightening up. ”That initial premise of the parents dying was a very tough one for audiences to embrace,” Matoian says of PO5. And refinements to Homicide, Littlefield notes, ”make it easier to watch, with a more satisfying resolution each week.” Though CBS’ Nash Bridges surged ahead of Homicide this spring, NBC’s renewal of the edgy cop show for two more seasons was a particularly satisfying resolution.

Winners: ‘Saturday Night Live,’ ‘MAD TV’
Losers: ‘Saturday Night Special,’ ‘The Dana Carvey Show’

Should the networks try to reinvigorate sketch comedy or just call in Dr. Kevorkian? Twenty-one-year-old Saturday Night Live got a stay of execution, thanks to writer and talent housecleaning and some memorable turns by guest hosts (Jim Carrey, Teri Hatcher, even Steve Forbes — we said memorable, not necessarily admirable). Roseanne, with more bluster than wit, vowed to deliver the coup de grace to SNL but instead delivered the dull-witted Saturday Night Special for Fox. ”Roseanne’s audience is in love with that character, Roseanne Conner,” says Matoian, ”and it may not have translated.” In other words: Viewers can stand only so much Roseanne. With far less fanfare, Fox’s MAD TV proved a sleeper hit, often beating SNL among such groups as teens and young men and getting picked up for next season. ”We really felt it’s about time someone acknowledged what we were doing,” says MAD executive producer Adam Small. ”We opened up a brand-new time slot for the network.” Although Dana Carvey drew more viewers than any of these shows (an average audience of 16.6 million, compared with SNL‘s 7.2 million), he had the misfortune to perform in prime time (where he had to tone down his humor) and the mixed blessing to appear after Home Improvement (where he couldn’t pull the same numbers).

Winner: ’60 Minutes’
Loser: ‘Dateline NBC Sunday’

NBC may have smelled blood when graying 60 Minutes lost its football lead-in and ratings flagged. But comedies didn’t take in the 7 o’clock hour, so a fourth edition of Dateline NBC debuted March 17. 60 Minutes executive producer Don Hewitt remained unfazed: ”We don’t consider ourselves in competition with Dateline any more than we consider ourselves in competition with America’s Funniest Home Videos.” A few new commentators and perhaps a bottle of Geritol later, 60 Minutes finished in the top 10 for a record 19th season in a row and crushed Dateline (No. 101). Even so, Hewitt says, ”I don’t want to see Dateline fail. If they fail, NBC is liable to finally find a decent sitcom for Sunday at 7.”

Winner: ‘Ned and Stacey’
Loser: ‘Partners’

When Fox slotted Partners and Ned and Stacey after Melrose Place, it seemed like a smart move: Why not follow comedy with comedy? But judging by the pair’s lowly numbers, viewers weren’t amused. Still, Ned (No. 121) will become the network’s first freshman comedy to get renewed since Living Single three years ago, while Partners (No. 128) gets the hook. ”Partners got lumped into ‘It’s a Friends clone’ and nobody let go of that,” notes Fox’s Matoian. ”Ned was much higher concept, so it didn’t have to face that similar uphill struggle.” The road ahead for Ned looks smooth; it’ll move to Sundays, sandwiched between The Simpsons and The X-Files.

Winners: ‘Moesha,’ ‘Savannah’
Losers: Seven new UPN and WB series

Simon, First Time Out, Cleghorne!, Swift Justice, Live Shot, Deadly Games, The Paranormal Borderline… how many of those canceled series do you remember? Still, the fledgling UPN and WB networks fostered two new hits. Teen songstress Brandy’s Moesha became UPN’s second-highest-rated show (after Star Trek: Voyager), thanks largely to devoted young black viewers — which may have prompted the netlet to aim most of its fall schedule at ethnic audiences. UPN Entertainment president Mike Sullivan would also like to thank ”some middle-aged executives at CBS, who were unaware of her celebrity and let the show go.” Meanwhile, the South rose again on the WB as the soap Savannah (No. 144) turned out to be Aaron Spelling’s sole mid-season hit — R.I.P. Fox’s Kindred: The Embraced (No. 127) and NBC’s Malibu Shores. ”We ended up with the right one, luckily for us,” says Garth Ancier, programming head for the WB. ”We had a good slant — the iron fist under the velvet glove of Southern women.” Ancier’s counting on that fist to pack a wallop come Mondays at 9 p.m. next fall, picking up channel-hopping viewers who are disappointed by the limp, liver-spotted slap of Melrose Place.

Winners: ‘Gulliver’s Travels,’ ‘The Beast’
Losers: All Other Miniseries

It was hardly a banner year for miniseries, as many big-ticket projects yielded lightweight Nielsens. Witness these sweeps duds: A Season in Purgatory (CBS), Dead Man’s Walk (ABC), Ruby Ridge: An American Tragedy (CBS), and The Thorn Birds: The Missing Years (CBS). ”I think the public said, ‘These stories feel too familiar,”’ says Fox’s Matoian. ”It’s rare that one looks different and works.” NBC can speak for two such rarities: Gulliver’s Travels, starring Ted Danson, and The Beast, starring a giant squid. (Both drew an average of 30 million viewers.) ”They were events,” gushes NBC’s Littlefield. ”The audience felt, ‘I can’t find this anywhere else.”’ Or perhaps they couldn’t escape them. In other words, without Gulliver-size hype, networks can expect lilliputian ratings.

(With additional reporting by A.J. Jacobs and Elizabeth Johns)

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