The closest ratings race in 25 years just ended, but with the announcements of their 1991 fall schedules, the networks are preparing for round 2. NBC will try to make it seven years in a row at the top of the Nielsens. Second-place ABC will attempt to take the ratings crown with a comedy-heavy lineup. And CBS Entertainment president Jeff Sagansky has already predicted with uncharacteristic bravado that his network, which will telecast the World Series, the Super Bowl, and the Winter Olympics next season, will finish first. Fox, meanwhile, will try to outsmart the Big Three by launching some series in July.
Network television’s new bottom-line climate is reflected in the fall slates, which are heavy on easy-to-syndicate comedies and cheap-to-produce reality shows. What’s missing? Serious dramas, which are dwindling to near-extinction, and high concepts: Don’t expect any singing cops or talking logs in September’s new entries.
A few years ago, sitcoms were in danger of disappearing; next fall, viewers will see no fewer than 50, the most in TV history. And many of the newcomers will be filled with kids. The premise of Step by Step should satisfy Brady Bunch lovers: Two single parents (Suzanne Somers and Patrick Duffy) meet, marry, and move their three boys and three girls into one big house. Another big suburban brood, The Torkelsons, lives on poverty’s edge; viewers will meet the clan through the wry eyes of 14-year-old Dorothy (Olivia Burnette). NBC’s fantasy-adventure Eerie, Indiana will also offer a teen’s-eye view of small-town life, courtesy of a 13-year-old former city dweller (Dallas‘ Omri Katz) who believes that the community his family has moved to is actually Blue Velvet-ville. CBS’ The Royal Family features Redd Foxx and Della Reese as a couple whose lives are disrupted when their grandchildren move in. And a posh boarding school is the setting of Teech, in which a black music teacher tries to take the sting out of his hostile WASP pupils.
Looking for a more adult audience is the aptly titled Grownups, from Taxi creator James L. Brooks, a comedy about three sisters that boasts a promising (and still incomplete) ensemble: Marsha Mason, Alex Rocco, and Simpsons voice Dan Castellaneta. Other comedies with eye-catching casts include Good and Evil, with Teri Garr and Margaret Whitton as mismatched sisters; Man of the People, which stars James Garner as a con man who inherits his ex-wife’s city council seat; and Pacific Station, which unites Robert Guillaume and Richard Libertini as incompatible cops.
Another odd couple appears in Flesh ‘n’ Blood , a comedy from Cheers‘ producers about a Baltimore lawyer (Lisa Darr) who discovers that her long-lost brother (David Keith) is a crook. And in Princesses three roommates, one of them royalty, share a penthouse. Julie Hagerty, Fran Drescher, and Twiggy Lawson (the princess) star.
NBC’s Nurses focuses on five RN’s in a Miami hospital familiar to viewers of The Golden Girls and Empty Nest; count on several crossover appearances. CBS is so confident that Family Ties creator Gary David Goldberg can hit gold again that the network bought his new 1950s comedy-drama Brooklyn Bridge without a pilot; and ABC is sure it has the next Roseanne in Home Improvement, which stars comedian Tim Allen as a suburban dad who hosts a home-repair show.
Despite their almost obsessive emphasis on laughs, the networks will also launch a handful of new dramas. Homefront, the fall’s only new serial, will try to capitalize on feel-good war sentiment by interweaving stories of returning World War II GIs in a small town. And in I’ll Fly Away, Northern Exposure creators Joshua Brand and John Falsey will portray a Southern lawyer (Sam Waterston), his three children, and their black maid, against the backdrop of the early 1960’s civil rights movement.
Oscar-winner Marlee Matlin makes her series debut in the Chicago crime drama Reasonable Doubts as a hearing-impaired assistant DA who pursues criminals with police investigator Mark Harmon. Another crime show, The Commish, portrays the travails of a city police chief. CBS rejected the show last fall — ”We couldn’t crack the casting,” says Sagansky — but ABC thinks it has a star in Michael Chiklis (John Belushi in Wired).
Action-adventure, a genre out of favor in recent years, seems poised for a comeback next fall. Palace Guard pairs D.W. Moffett and Marcy Walker (Santa Barbara) in an hour about a thief-turned-security-expert for a hotel chain. Speaking of comebacks, series veterans Connie Sellecca and Greg Evigan will star in the clumsily titled P.S. I Luv U, about a con artist and a cop joined in the federal witness protection program. And ABC is giving Gabriel’s Fire a face-lift, teaming Gabriel (James Earl Jones) with a new partner (Richard Crenna) in a more comedic hour titled Bird and Katt.
Reality shows are also joining the schedule. Opposite CBS’ sober 60 Minutes, NBC plans to air the light-spirited Adventures of Mark and Brian, in which a pair of Los Angeles DJs get to realize their dreams (singing with the Temptations) and nightmares (bungee-jumping). And ABC gives a new look to a onetime TV staple in FBI: The Untold Stories, a half hour of reenactments of cases from bureau files.
Finally, another TV mainstay will turn up in the first new variety series since Dolly. Twenty-four years after its initial incarnation, The Carol Burnett Show returns to CBS. The star is the same; supporting players will be named later.
By dropping four dramas — China Beach, Equal Justice, thirtysomething, and Twin Peaks — which won a total of 33 Emmy nominations last year, ABC made the most sweeping changes of any network and effectively abandoned its reputation for hospitality to innovative drama. ABC also jettisoned Davis Rules, Eddie Dodd, The Father Dowling Mysteries, Going Places, Head of the Class, Married People, My Life and Times, and Stat.
On NBC, Hunter was shot down by Fred Dryer’s salary demands (he wanted $350,000 an episode), and Carol & Company succumbed when CBS purloined its star. Also axed: Amen, Dark Shadows, Down Home, Midnight Caller, and Shannon’s Deal. CBS dropped Doctor, Doctor (regretfully, says Sagansky), The Antagonists, The Flash, Good Sports, Guns of Paradise, Lenny, and WIOU.