TV Article

'Twas the Season

Television’s winners and losers -- A rundown of the nightly network face-offs and who faired better

Television’s winners and losers

Winners
ABC, NBC, and Fox
Losers
CBS, UPN, and WB

For the first time since the Happy Days of 1978-79, ABC emerged as the No. 1 network (even though it added no new hit series to its slate). NBC placed a close second, thanks in large part to refurbished lineups on Tuesday (Wings, Frasier) and Thursday (Friends, ER). CBS fell from first to third place and was surpassed by Fox among the key 18-to-49-year-old audience. And joining the fray in January, new networks UPN and WB quickly got pummeled. UPN announced that it will yank all of its shows next fall except Star Trek: Voyager (No. 102); and Warner Bros.' Wednesday sitcoms — its only night of programming so far — have routinely brought up the rear of the rankings. But that doesn't mean the Big Four aren't looking over their corporate shoulders. Says NBC entertainment president Warren Littlefield, ''After the experience of Fox, we don't take anybody for granted.''

Winner
Home Improvement
Winner
Frasier

Tuesday's vaunted 9 o'clock clash between ratings behemoth Home Improvement and spin-off phenom Frasier turned out to be more of a letdown — if you were looking for one overwhelming victor. Though Home Improvement lost about 10 percent of its viewers from the previous year, it still nailed the No. 1 ranking for the second straight year. The cast and creative team of NBC's Frasier, a critical darling ranked No. 8 last season, were nervous about getting kicked from their comfortable Thursday-night roost to the weaker Tuesday lineup. But, explains NBC's Littlefield, ''the story was never about who would win — it was, 'Could we establish a beachhead [on Tuesday]?''' Eight months later, Frasier, comfortable at No. 16, had helped give the network its wish. Sums up Littlefield: ''Great risk, high reward.''

Winner
NBC Thursday Night
Loser
Madman of the People

NBC's Thursday ''Must See TV'' promos proved to be almost as accurate as they were grating, with close to 30 million viewers tuning in each week for a boffo programming parade anchored by Mad About You (No. 12) at 8 p.m. and Seinfeld (No. 2) at 9 p.m. In true hit-begets-hit fashion, Friends (No. 6) charged out of the gates a winner at 8:30 p.m. (it later moved to 9:30), with fellow frosh ER doing even better (No. 3) at 10 p.m. ''It seems like each week, somebody is breaking out on Thursday night,'' says Jerry Seinfeld. That phenomenal momentum has terrorized the competition — NBC has ''breakouts that'll be on the air for 10 years,'' sighs Fox programming vice president Dan McDermott — and even left one of NBC's own in the dust. The critically drubbed Madman of the People (featuring Dabney Coleman as a cranky columnist) couldn't hold Seinfeld's numbers at 9:30 p.m. and became the weak thread in an otherwise seamless night of TV. ''That's the curse and the blessing of Thursday night,'' says Littlefield. ''You've got to deliver.'' So, even though Madman finished the year at No. 11, NBC opted to stop the presses.

Winner
Grace Under Fire
Loser
Roseanne

Sure, Grace Under Fire had flourished with Home Improvement as a lead-in, but could Brett Butler's sitcom survive away from Tim Allen's? ABC found out when it moved Grace to Wednesday at 9 p.m. this spring and the show remained in the top 10. A scheduling switch for Roseanne, on the other hand, proved a drag. Airing on Wednesdays at 8 p.m., an hour earlier than she had before, Rosey lost her bloom, and the former No. 1-rated show fell out of the weekly top 10 — and often even out of the top 20. Making matters worse, Roseanne's difficult pregnancy forced her to curtail her presence on the show. ''The producers did a terrific job covering for her, but she's the star attraction,'' admits ABC senior vice president Alan Sternfeld. ''Her absence creates a significant void.'' Perhaps Roseanne's return to health — and a newborn addition to the Conner family — will rejuvenate the series next season.

Winner
NYPD Blue
Loser"
Northern Exposure

Two popular series, two key cast changes, two very different outcomes. On ABC's NYPD Blue, Jimmy Smits, replacing David Caruso, helped the squad's ratings shoot from No. 29 to No. 8. ''Jimmy brought an awful lot to the party both in terms of his work and his fan base,'' says NYPD executive producer Steven Bochco. ''And people finally realized that the show's compelling aspects are not its language and nudity — there's a helluva lot more going on.'' Meanwhile, former top 20 staple Northern Exposure, plagued by a loss of direction after five seasons, tapped Paul Provenza to replace movie-bound Rob Morrow. But before audiences had time to warm to the new doc, CBS quietly dumped the show into its troubled Wednesday-night lineup, where it plunged to a chilly No. 50 before getting canceled. ''The show had a lot of life in it, and the move killed it,'' says executive producer Andrew Schneider. ''This piddling out is sad.''

Winners
Dramas
Losers
Newsmagazines

How long was the drama drought? The last time that genre was fashionable, so was break dancing. How massive was the newsmagazine glut? There were nine hours of newsmagazines weekly at the start of this season, not including specials. It's no surprise, then, that the hour-long form is undergoing a revolution. Newsmagazines, once beloved by networks because they're cheap to make, reached saturation this season; abysmal ratings have already claimed ABC's Day One (No. 93) and CBS' Eye to Eye With Connie Chung (No. 100; see story on page 12). While 60 Minutes (No. 7) and 20/20 (No. 15) stand tall, other magazine shows are fighting for the limited news audience, sometimes nose-to-nose. ''There are only so many stories suitable for magazine coverage,'' says ABC exec Sternfeld, ''and some of the newsmagazines trip over each other.'' Fictional hours, on the other hand, have been reborn: Witness the rise of no-holds-barred shows like ER (the highest-ranked drama since Murder, She Wrote in 1985-86), NYPD Blue, Law & Order, and Chicago Hope. ''Dramas are dealing with the problems of contemporary reality in a way nothing else does today,'' says Law & Order executive producer Dick Wolf. ''America got tired of fast food.''

Winners
Young Turks
Losers
Old Fogies

Which would you rather watch: a clever show with an unknown cast or a mediocre series featuring a veteran star? There was a time when network execs would have voted for the latter, but they'll think twice-actually, four times — after the cold receptions given this season to Martin Short (The Martin Short Show, pulled after three weeks), Bill Cosby (The Cosby Mysteries, No. 69), Gene Wilder (Something Wilder, No. 76), and Dudley Moore (Daddy's Girls, No. 79). ''You have to constantly be creating new stars and new genres,'' notes Fox's McDermott. ''You can't just throw Bill Cosby on the air and expect a 30 share.'' But who could have expected this: ''A year ago I was getting ready to go back to my job busing tables, and now I'm signing autographs,'' laughs Noah Wyle, a star of first-year smash ER, which — along with Friends and NBC's Hope & Gloria (No. 18) — proved that new blood is the secret to a healthy network schedule.

Winner
Wings
Loser
Full House

Airing head-to-head on Tuesday at 8 p.m., Full House reached No. 25 for the season and Wings landed at No. 39 — yet ABC chose not to renew House's lease, and NBC's Wings won new respect as a legitimate hit. What gives? House's Olsen twins may have held kid viewers, but Wings' Hackett brothers (Tim Daly and Steven Weber) drew parents — and they have the wallets advertisers want to reach. ''No one expected us to do that well,'' concedes Wings' Crystal Bernard. Conventional wisdom said that Wings had succeeded for four years on Thursdays only because of its lead-ins (it had followed Cheers, Seinfeld, and then Mad About You), and that adult comedies couldn't work at such an early hour. The conventional wisdom was wrong. Next season such ''mature'' sitcoms as Friends and Ellen (No. 13) will also move into 8 p.m. slots.

Winner
Party of Five
Loser
My So-Called Life

The youth-angst dramas Party of Five (No. 123) and My So-Called Life (No. 115) drew critical raves — and few viewers. But Fox's Party will go on, while ABC's Life won't. Claiming Party is on the same growth curve as slow starters 90210 and Melrose Place, Fox entertainment president John Matoian saved the orphan series, with a request for one change: ''The premise of the parents' having died will take a backseat,'' he says. Still, executive producer Chris Keyser promises, ''The idea of [the kids'] being on their own will never disappear.'' Life had seemed to be on the road to renewal after MTV started airing reruns. Then star Claire Danes hinted she might not want to return. ''I think she wanted to do movies,'' says executive producer Marshall Herskovitz. ''Doing a TV show is grindingly difficult.'' In the end, ABC axed it.

Loser
Linda Bloodworth-Thomason
Loser
Diane English

Way back in the early '90s, when CBS was on top, English and Bloodworth-Thomason were the network's premier sitcom producers, building the Monday schedule into a powerhouse with the hits Evening Shade, Murphy Brown, and Designing Women. Murphy is still in the top 20 (No. 18), but English no longer works on the show. Her two latest projects, Love & War (No. 54) and Double Rush (No. 121), were whisked off the air after failing to reverse CBS' fortunes on Wednesday. So was Women of the House (No. 72), Bloodworth-Thomason's quasi-sequel to Designing. And her Hearts Afire (No. 91) flamed out as well. English is famous for her family-values battle with Dan Quayle, Bloodworth-Thomason for her friendship with Bill Clinton. But their left-wing humor didn't fly in the Year of the Newt.

Winner
Chicago Hope
Loser
Picket Fences

After its premiere last fall, Chicago Hope didn't look like a winner. Slotted against the other Windy City medical drama, NBC's ER, on Thursday at 10 p.m., ''we got our butts kicked,'' says executive producer Michael Dinner. But when CBS moved Hope to 10 p.m. on Monday — one of the network's few strong nights — the show sprang to life, and it wound up a solid 39th for the season. One problem: Giving Hope such a plum position slighted CBS' Emmy-winning Picket Fences (also created by Hope's David E. Kelley), which has long languished on Fridays. Fences finished at No. 76, splitting the quality-drama crowd with NBC's Homicide: Life on the Street (No. 98). ''Obviously, [Fences] is a good show, and I wish it would do better,'' says CBS senior vice president Steve Warner. ''But I wish all our shows would do better.''

Winner
The X-Files
Loser
Every Other Fox Sci-Fi Show

It's another great mystery Mulder and Scully haven't been able to solve: Why can't Fox find a companion for The X-Files? The sophomore series emerged as a surprise sensation this season, hitting No. 61 (making it Fox's third-highest-ranked show, after Beverly Hills, 90210 and The Simpsons) and tallying a 44 percent jump in viewers from last year-tops for any network series. Hoping to capitalize on The X-Files' success, Fox searched all season for a lead-in, with dismal results: M.A.N.T.I.S. at No. 125 and VR.5 at No. 131. And in the post-90210 slot on Wednesday, another new sci-fi series, Sliders, slid to No. 107. Insists Fox's McDermott: ''We're not soured on the genre.'' Hey, keep on launching those sci-fi Scuds and we just might be.

By Bruce Fretts and Dan Snierson with additional reporting by Erica K. Cardozo, Heather Keets, Jessica Shaw, Gary Walk, and Bret Watson

Originally posted Jun 02, 1995 Published in issue #277 Jun 02, 1995 Order article reprints
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