Dan Snierson
December 15, 2000 AT 05:00 AM EST

The 2000-01 TV season

Tis the season to wrap up the year with a nice little bow, so why don’t we end the punditry and political maneuvering by tackling the question that’s hanging like a chad over everyone’s head: Is the first TV season of the new millennium shaping up to be one for the ages? Well, it certainly seems so — if only because viewers were forced to navigate a nasty labyrinth of schedule delays and preemptions, thanks to the Olympics and election madness. ”I don’t think we’ve seen a year like this in quite some time,” sighs CBS senior VP Kelly Kahl. ”And yet with all these potential land mines out there for viewers, a lot of new shows got sampled.”

Oh, did they ever. Shall we review the big new faces this fall? Bette Midler. Geena Davis. Michael Richards. John Goodman. Everyone impressed? Great. Now let’s talk about the successful new faces: Craig T. Nelson. William Petersen. Chi McBride… Whoa, hold on — did someone just say Chi McBride? Of The Secret Diary of Desmond Pfeiffer fame? That’s right. In case you haven’t noticed, McBride’s high school drama, Fox’s Boston Public, is rated a class above a certain frazzle-haired dude (hint: He’s on NBC’s The Michael Richards Show) in the Nielsens. ”This is not a business that’s friendly toward stars,” surmises Fox exec VP Preston Beckman of the challenge facing Mr. Richards, Ms. Midler, Mr. Goodman, and Ms. Davis — all of whom have had a rough go of it (but more on that later). ”Part of the enjoyment of television is discovering people, not having someone rammed down your throat (that) you’ve seen before.”

Good point. Now choke on this: Remember Mike O’Malley, the guy whose self-titled 1999 sitcom lasted slightly longer than an Altoid? This year, his CBS sitcom, Yes, Dear, was predicted again to be DOA — only to wind up gathering almost as many viewers as vets like The Drew Carey Show and The Simpsons. And remember Darren Star’s smash-in-the-making stock market series, The Street? Last time we checked our ratings portfolio, it was losing to Star Trek: Voyager, which — ahem — is on U-P-N. And remember how Who Wants to Be a Millionaire was making competitors cower? Although Reege still banks mega-viewers, he’s being bested in the key 18-to-49-year-old demo by (a) That ’70s Show, (b) The X-Files, (c) Will & Grace, and (d) Just Shoot Me.

At least the networks haven’t had to cling to their lifelines. While there’s been no new crazy breakout success à la Survivor or Millionaire, audience numbers grew ever so slightly from last year, as long-toothed vets like Law & Order and Everybody Loves Raymond continue to gobble up new viewers. As a result, eight series (ER, Frasier, Raymond, three nights of Millionaire, Friends, and The West Wing) hover near the 20-million-viewer mark or above it, which is more than double the number of shows that hit those heights this time last year. But if the overall picture was a bit healthier, it was no less competitive. NBC won November sweeps among 18-to-49s (it owns the top six series in that demo), but ABC attracted more total viewers. Of the five highest-rated new shows, CBS can claim three of them, while Fox (with the help of the World Series) and UPN boast the greatest percentage gains of the networks in total viewers. There was good news for The WB, too: The netlet — which was beating UPN this time last year before suffering a dismal rest of the season — leapfrogged its way past UPN and out of the ratings cellar once again. Want more scoop on the winners and losers? Take our night-by-night stroll through the prime-time thicket.

Would CBS’ trash turn into NBC’s treasure? That was the hope behind Ed, the David Letterman-produced dramedy that CBS rejected before Dave’s ex-employer claimed it. The Peacock wisely debuted the series before Fox launched its perennially powerful Sunday slate. And while Ed made an early name for himself, he slipped to No. 42 after running into Homer and Malcolm (No. 20 The Simpsons and No. 25 Malcolm in the Middle). This month, NBC moved Ed to Wednesdays before West Wing and Law & Order, where it hopes ratings can thrive. ”The buzz was there for a reason,” says NBC senior VP Mitch Metcalf of the critically acclaimed series. ”The number of choices is just staggering, and quality is what keeps shows on the air.” That’s good news for The X-Files, which has traded David Duchovny for Robert Patrick but is still cruising at No. 32, while ABC’s The Practice keeps holding court at No. 13. ”Last year its Millionaire (lead-in) brought The Practice to a different level of viewership,” says ABC exec VP Jeff Bader. ”This year Millionaire has come down a bit, but The Practice still builds, so a lot of the audience that discovered it last year is staying with it.” Case closed.

Attention, Mike O’Malley and the rest of the Yes, Dear cast: Sorry for, like, being one of the many media outlets who said your generic two-couple comedy would be canceled and stuff. But God bless Mr. & Mrs. John Q. Nielsen — not only is Yes, Dear still on the air, it’s now the No. 27 show. And that’s the lowest-rated link in CBS’ Monday comedy slate, which also includes The King of Queens (No. 26), Becker (No. 15), and Raymond (No. 3 — and adding viewers for the fourth season in a row). ”Monday has always been the trademark comedy night for CBS,” says Kahl. ”The victory for us this season is that in the past we’ve had a piece or two pieces…. Now, for the first time in many years, it’s a complete night.” CBS wasn’t the only one with good time(slot) management skills: On Fox’s all-David E. Kelley eve, No. 39 Boston Public passed its entrance exams, while poor Robert Downey Jr. helped rejuvenate No. 34 Ally McBeal. (”Ex-con revives law drama?” chuckles David Marans, of the media investment firm MindShare. ”Ummm…brilliant!”) And for NBC, it was almost a complete night, too — a complete disaster. Save for No. 40 Third Watch, its lineup was run right off the air: Buh-bye, Deadline (No. 60), Daddio (No. 85), and Tucker (No. 87).

Newcomers Geena Davis and Michael Richards should’ve been the two brightest stories of the night — their shows fizzled out at No. 44 and No. 64, respectively — but instead, it was a little couple named Niles and Daphne. Free of head-to-head competition with Millionaire, the Emmy-happy Frasier is surprisingly drawing more viewers than last year and creaming ABC romantic comedy Dharma & Greg (No. 33). ”It’s a big story,” says Marans. ”[Frasier’s] been on a long time, they made a major change in the plot, and they moved it off Thursday. And, oh, it’s the No. 2 show on TV?” In the meantime, Fox had a somewhat smaller victory in the rising That ’70s Show (No. 51) and James Cameron’s action-chick drama, Dark Angel (No. 30). Though It Babe Jessica Alba’s series has trailed off a tad since its debut, ”it’s comfortable,” reports TN Media’s Steve Sternberg. ”It does extremely well demographically… especially among men.” What a shocker.

ABC’s Millionaire. CBS’ Bette. NBC’s Titans. Fox’s John Goodman sitcom, Normal, Ohio. Though there were enough high-profile options here to fill an entire night, all duked it out in a single hour — making Wednesday at 8 p.m. the season’s toughest time slot. And when the Nielsen dust settled: Millionaire was money (No. 5); Miss M had nothing to sing about at No. 50; Normal was below average (No. 72); Titans tanked (the No. 79 show has since been shipped to Mondays); and on the froglet, Dawson’s Creek enjoyed a minor rebirth at No. 96. If the 8 p.m. slot was the most contentious, then the 9 p.m. proved a juicy second. No recounts were necessary to declare The West Wing (No. 8) a runaway hit. ”The Emmys really set the table,” says Metcalf, ”and then the election was just a dessert that creates an environment for it to succeed.” Meanwhile, despite the loss of Michael J., ABC’s Spin City carried on admirably with Charlie Sheen (No. 36) — too bad for Fox, it could really use the Wall Street star on The Street (No. 94). ”Serials are extremely difficult to launch with large numbers,” reasons Beckman, adding ”Felicity had a very good year, so that’s siphoning off some of The Street‘s audience.” In fact, Felicity (No. 100) avoided cancellation by earning its best numbers since ’98-’99. Gosh, if Scott Speedman grew out his hair, who knows what this show could do?

Next to Hillary Clinton ditching D.C. for New York, the biggest move of the year had to be Will & Grace jumping from Tuesday into the Thursday-at-9 throne. With the hot seat turned up to swelter, the show delivered an all-out Jack attack, soaring to No. 9 (Will is also the No. 3 show in the 18-to-49 demo). While NBC’s continued dominance lifted Steven Weber’s Cursed to No. 16 — the highest ranking of any new show — Cursed‘s drop-off from No. 6 Friends likely means we’ve got another Jesse on our hands. ”Don’t count Cursed out,” warns Metcalf. ”There was tons of negative buzz on it, but it truly is getting in great shape.” The same can be said for Gilmore Girls (No. 102), which is becoming a slow-building success on The WB, while UPN’s WWF Smackdown! (No. 81) continues to be a male magnet.

It seemed like a no-brainer. Throw on a decent adaptation of a Harrison Ford blockbuster film/classic TV series, sit back, and let the Nielsen meters go haywire. Turns out they were an hour off the mark. While The Fugitive ran into trouble at No. 61, its time slot lead-out — CSI, a sleek, visually quirky detective drama, was actually the one America most wanted, arresting 15 million viewers at No. 19. ”It’s one that kind of flew beneath the radar,” says Kahl. ”But you take the hits where you can get ’em.” Fox certainly would have with Freakylinks, its 152nd attempt at dark sci-fi, but the series logged in at No. 95, becoming the lowest-rated Big Four show. ABC didn’t fare much better. It disbanded its TGIF slate, handing over Sabrina and The Hughleys to The WB and UPN. To what effect? The net’s new combo of Two Guys and a Girl (No. 83), The Trouble With Normal (No. 89), Norm (No. 86), and Madigan Men (No. 84) gave us inspiration for a new slogan: ABC Friday: Bet you miss Urkel now.

Ahh, Saturday. A time to unwind, flip on the TV, and… slide in a video. While ABC and NBC tossed on Movies of the Weak and Fox continued to call in the COPS, one guy wasn’t going to concede without a fight: Craig T. Nelson. The erstwhile Coach‘s new crime drama, The District, locked up the No. 29 spot. ”If you throw up B movies every week, Saturday becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy,” says Kahl. ”It’s good to see a new show thrive on Saturday.” But it wasn’t that surprising in this case. ”All you had to do is show this to any group of people over 50,” says Marans, ”and you knew it’d be a hit.” In other words, CBS may have found a new geriatric-friendly workhorse. After all, Diagnosis Murder can’t run forever… can it?

Additional reporting by Brian M. Raftery

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