Not so long ago, prime time was filled with cops and lawyers, doctors and detectives, Ewings and Carringtons. But the hour-long drama, once a staple of the networks’ schedules, has fallen on hard times. Actually, near-extinction is more like it; of this season’s dramas, only CBS’ lighthearted Murder, She Wrote and Northern Exposure have been able to crack Nielsen’s top 30. So in the coming year, the networks will look to the movie and publishing worlds to experiment with new formats and revitalize the sagging genre.
Third-place ABC will try to raise its ratings with what it is calling ”event series” — hour-long dramas that tell a single story over several weekly episodes and then end. The network has already signed director Oliver Stone (JFK) to create one, and novelist Judith Krantz (Scruples) to create two; each will run six or eight weeks. CBS also is relying on movie directors and beach-bag novelists: The network has promised series to Robert Zemeckis (Back to the Future), who will create a comedy/drama called Johnny Bago for next fall’s schedule, and to Jackie Collins, who will supervise the plotting of a new prime-time soap, Sunset West. Ironically, it’s the Fox network that may seek the traditional route to success next fall with a well-worn TV staple: the spin-off. The network will use the teen hit Beverly Hills, 90210 to launch Melrose Place, a drama whose characters will be in their equally trendy 20s.