The stick in Murphy Brown's pregnancy test turns blue and everyone tunes in to its premiere. It's a clear-cut No. 1 hit for CBS, boosting the network to its biggest lead over NBC since 1981. On NBC Rebecca and Sam attempt parenthood and Cheers barrels its way into its 10th season. And as for ABC, well, with the lowest premiere for any network in history, this year's programming decisions may brand it with its old moniker: ''the Almost Broadcasting Company.''
At the end of last season, ABC programming chief Robert A. Iger decided to cancel several critically acclaimed but low-rated shows (among them thirtysomething and China Beach), even though they had a strong demographic: an audience in the 18-49 age range, one advertisers covet. In their stead Iger announced a fall schedule heavy with comedies and mass-appeal series, a strategy that was intended to make a run at first place. But as premiere week approached, Iger abruptly shifted gears, telling The New York Times that demographics were more important to him than a No. 1 finish. To many industry observers Iger's comments had the ring of an early surrender, and this speculation was borne out by ABC's weak premiere showing.
Homefront, the network's thirtysomething replacement on Tuesday night, fared poorly. It promised something for everyone war stories, romance, young couples, older couples-but was unable to capitalize on the huge lead in audience from Roseanne. A risky all-comedy lineup on Wednesday proved mediocre in its initial showing. Dinosaurs, a high-potential prehistoric half hour, was intended to be the night's dominant leadoff, but it lost its time period to NBC's Unsolved Mysteries and CBS' The Royal Family. Bad news continued on Thursday, where the network's new roster, which includes a revamped Gabriel's Fire and two reality series (FBI: The Untold Stories, American Detective), came in fourth behind NBC, CBS, and Fox.
Perhaps the most telling indicator during premiere week was what ABC didn't show. Iger lacked a complete lineup for Wednesday, Thursday, and Saturday nights. Instead, ABC aired a rerun of a Lifetime cable movie, another movie, and a college football game basically handing off those evenings to the other networks.
On the strong side, Roseanne continues to shine as a prime-time powerhouse. And Tuesday night is where Iger pumps his biggest programming muscle. He's revitalized a sagging early-evening audience by pairing the already proven Friday-night success Full House with the new Home Improvement one of the few uncontested hits of the season. Friday night's one-two combination of the new Step by Step and the old Urkel-driven Family Matters seems to be maintaining ABC's dominance. But this season's shaky start is still bad enough to have fueled speculation about Iger and his programming team. ''I say he'll be out by December,'' says a network producer who didn't want his name used (probably because he's trying to sell a series to ABC).
Iger was unavailable for comment. ''He won't discuss the new season until after a month has passed, so that the network can comment intelligently on viewing patterns that have been established,'' says ABC spokesman Bob Wright. Though it's admittedly early for doom predictions, and the network's numbers picked up in the second week, if ABC's downward trend continues, mid-season replacements are likely to involve more than scheduling.