Last fall, the networks introduced a record 34 new series to prime time with corporate confidence that verged on bravado. Cops who rocked, students who sang, enviro-adventures, and medical documentaries would all compete for an audience craving innovation and revolution. ''Tried and true equals dead and buried,'' crowed NBC's Brandon Tartikoff.
Three months later, heads are being scratched, wounds are being licked, and the only things dead and buried are most of those new shows. At its halfway point, the 1990-91 season has yielded exactly one hit ABC's America's Funniest People and 33 not-yets, not-quites, not-tonights, and not-if-it-were-the-only- show-on-TV-and-the-video-store-had-nothing-but-Ghost Dads. ''It was a terribly self-destructive fall,'' says ABC entertainment chief Robert Iger. ''There were way too many new shows and way too many shows returning in new time periods. The result was utter confusion.''
ABC, NBC, and CBS are now in their closest race since 1965, and network executives are pondering what went wrong and how to fix it. Each network is trying to attract a demographically desirable young audience and achieve mainstream success as well, and Fox, going through a rough expansion, is hoping to establish itself as a legitimate fourth (not just fourth-place) network. The contest so far:
ABC has won the night on the strength of Monday Night Football, but in the postseason, men and momentum may switch to CBS' surging lineup. Major Dad, Murphy Brown, and Designing Women have never been more popular, and the Burt Reynolds comedy, Evening Shade, is poised to enter the top 30. NBC's Fresh Prince of Bel-Air hasn't been the smash many predicted, but it's still the fall's highest-rated new comedy. ''We're extremely pleased with it,'' says Perry Simon, NBC's executive vice president in charge of prime-time programs. ''It's the No. 1 show among teenagers on any night, on any network.''
NBC wins with Matlock, In the Heat of the Night, and the growing success Law & Order a trio of book-'em-and-cook-'em crime dramas with tremendous appeal to older viewers. Although still a top 10 show, ABC's Roseanne has sagged since last season. Iger blames the decline on increased competition from CBS ''They're throwing things like Field of Dreams at us'' and on a weak lead-in, Head of the Class, which will be replaced by the Randy Quaid-Jonathan Winters comedy Davis Rules. Can ABC win back the night? ''We're going to try,'' says Iger, ''but it's going to be very difficult.''
With a popular comedy lineup that includes The Wonder Years, the rising hit Doogie Howser, M.D., and the modest success Married People, ABC should own the night, but the disastrous performance of the musical Cop Rock, which ends its run this month, has turned Wednesday into a horse race. So far, Cop Rock's failure has benefited NBC's Hunter the most. ''None of us expected it to do this well on Wednesdays,'' says NBC's Simon. ''We're delighted.'' On CBS, after a decade of 8 p.m. programming disasters that drew more flies than viewers, the news show 48 Hours is getting a chance. At 10 p.m., hopes for the ensemble drama WIOU have been tempered by shaky ratings.