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Will CBS take the fall?

Battling ABC for the ratings topspot, the eye network blinks

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NBC Entertainment president Warren Littlefield has two words to describe CBS’ programming strategy this season: ”manic chaos.” During his turbulent three- year tenure, NBC has plummeted from first place to third and lost Carson, Cosby, Cheers, and Letterman. This man knows from manic chaos.

The paradox of the fall 1993 TV season is that CBS—No. 1 since the 1991-92 season in overall household ratings—is the one network making drastic, panicky changes to its schedule, while NBC and Fox, the distantly trailing third- and fourth-place networks, have shown patience, keeping their lineups virtually intact.

Consider these desperate moves: *CBS cancels the Bronson Pinchot sitcom, The Trouble With Larry, before the fall season has officially begun. *CBS cancels the prime-time soap Angel Falls, which would have needed time to build a following, after only six episodes. *CBS cancels the private-eye series South of Sunset after a single airing. *CBS pulls the Robert Urich-Faye Dunaway comedy, It Had to Be You, after three weeks and may bring it back without Dunaway.

The reason for this sudden, fitful behavior? Led by the unstoppable Home Improvement, ABC is in a neck-and-neck race with CBS for total number of viewers this season—and in the November sweeps, which are used to determine all-important advertising rates. In its scramble for the top, ABC had its own brief spell of CBS-like behavior, killing the two-episode-old Saturday-night variety hour, The Paula Poundstone Show. (Poundstone’s manager, Bonnie Burns, claims the network has other plans for her client: ”(ABC) feels the time period for her is after (Ted) Koppel, five nights a week.”) CBS’ early alterations to its schedule weren’t entirely unexpected. Abandoning the traditional 13-episode request, the network had asked for only six episodes of most of its new shows. ”The climate right now in the TV business is frustrating,” says producer Marta Kauffman (Dream On), whose CBS sitcom, Family Album, expired after six weeks. ”Just as you start to get the hang of something creatively, you’re done.”

Unless your series is on NBC or Fox. Going against CBS’ dogma that you can’t afford to leave an underperforming show on the air in today’s increasingly competitive, multichannel environment, NBC and Fox have given full-season orders to such low-rated new programs as The Mommies, Cafe Americain, The John Larroquette Show, The Adventures of Brisco County, Jr., and The X-Files, hoping that viewers will eventually discover them.

Meanwhile, CBS is trotting out mid-season replacements (Dick Van Dyke’s Diagnosis Murder has already hit the air) with no guarantee that any will be given time to hook an audience. But the network’s quick-cut strategy hasn’t affected the confidence of Barney Rosenzweig (Cagney & Lacey), producer of Tyne Daly’s mid-season CBS series, Christy. ”It’s impossible to feel less secure than I feel already,” he says. ”I don’t know what less than zero is.”

The fallibility of the once-mighty CBS isn’t the only lesson to be gleaned from the TV season so far. Here are some others: *Time slot is king. While the season has produced a bunch of new hit shows, all follow highly rated, established series. It’s no coincidence that the two biggest new hits, Grace Under Fire and Frasier, air after Home Improvement and Seinfeld. Other one-two, old-and-new combos: Evening Shade and Dave’s World, Coach and NYPD Blue, Family Matters and Boy Meets World, Full House and Phenom.

*Some shows can’t be revamped. After disappointing first seasons, CBS’ Hearts Afire and Bob got major face-lifts, acquiring new actors and settings. Both shows then did much worse than before. Others that haven’t benefited much from tinkering: Love & War, Law & Order, and L.A. Law.

*There is such a thing as too many family sitcoms. In their haste to find the next Roseanne or Home Improvement, the networks created a glut of new wisecracking-parent shows. While Dave’s World and Grace Under Fire have caught on, Thea, Joe’s Life, The Sinbad Show, and The Second Half have been lost in the crowd.

*There are only so many ways to slice an audience. Why is CBS dying on Wednesdays (aside from the fact that The Trouble With Larry and South of Sunset were god-awful)? Fox commands teens with Beverly Hills, 90210 and Melrose Place, ABC pulls in baby boomers with Home Improvement and Grace Under Fire, and NBC snares elders with Unsolved Mysteries and Now. There’s nothing but crumbs left over.

*The great Sunday showdown hasn’t been so great. The battle between ABC’s Lois & Clark and NBC’s seaQuest DSV has turned out to be a wash as both shows are splitting the same sci-fi-fantasy audience-and losing badly to CBS’ Murder, She Wrote. *Adult comedies don’t work on Fridays. CBS’ It Had to Be You, Family Album, and Bob proved that Friday viewers aren’t interested in more sophisticated comedy than can be found on ABC’s Family Matters and Step by Step.

*Adult dramas don’t work on Fridays. Despite critical hosannas, NBC’s Against the Grain and CBS’ Picket Fences are proving that Friday viewers aren’t interested in more sophisticated drama than can be found on Perry Mason reruns.

*Fox has some standards. The no-taste network put the crass Richard Lewis-Don Rickles sitcom, Daddy Dearest, on hiatus, but spared the lower-rated Bakersfield, P.D., a rare outpost of gentle wit on network TV.

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