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TV Winners & Losers: After the Fall

What the TV networks (should) have learned so far

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No matter which network you watched this fall, things felt a little off-kilter. On ABC, you had to remember to catch Roseanne and Ellen at 8. On NBC, the formerly Must See Mad About You was thrown into a Must Skip Sunday lineup. On Fox — home of supernatural occurrences like — the weirdest phenomenon of all was the broadcast of a Hallmark movie-of-the-week. And on the WB and UPN.let’s just say things have never really been on-kilter.

But things were messiest on CBS. Still smarting from the loss of key affiliates and the NFL, the Gen-Ex-Lax-skewing network launched a heavily hyped slate of series targeting the more desirable 18- to 49-year-olds. But the hottest hopeful, Central Park West, chilled out at No. 98, while If Not for You (No. 53), New York News (No. 94), Dweebs (No. 99), and Courthouse (No. 101) were axed, plunging CBS deeper into the abyss.

The network has faced a marketing catch-22. ”If CBS wants to promote new shows, where can they do it besides 60 Minutes, The Nanny, or Murphy Brown?” sighs Almost Perfect exec producer Robin Schiff, whose sitcom rests at a lukewarm No. 63, despite some good reviews. But CBS’ botched promotional efforts were only part of the problem; its strategy was simply too much, too soon. ”Putting on 11 new shows was probably crazy,” admits CBS entertainment president Leslie Moonves. ”Basically we said we were going much younger, and we scared away our core audience.” CBS is now in retreat, re-focusing CPW on more mature characters, reviving the older-slanted Diagnosis Murder and Due South, and signing Bill Cosby to a long-term sitcom deal.

Here are some other lessons we’ve gleaned from the season to date:

1 No one can take the Must See out of NBC Thursday. Now that the Peacock’s Thursday boasts five of the six highest-rated programs (ER, Seinfeld, Friends, Caroline in the City, and The Single Guy), rival networks might as well air test patterns. ER buried the best new drama, ABC’s Murder One (No. 62), which moves to Mondays in January. ”Sometimes you inch your way up little by little, and sometimes you get mowed down by the big gun at the top of the hill,” says ABC entertainment chief Ted Harbert. ”[The latter] is what happened here.” His NBC counterpart, Warren Littlefield, is happily plotting even more hyperbolic promos. His favorite: ”You don’t want to show up for work tomorrow if you haven’t seen Must See TV.”

2 Want a ratings kiss? Kiss a star goodbye. Last season, NYPD Blue‘s ratings shot up after Jimmy Smits replaced David Caruso. Thanks to this year’s defectors — Beverly Hills, 90210‘s Luke Perry, Chicago Hope‘s Mandy Patinkin and Peter MacNicol, and Wings‘ Thomas Haden Church — their series also jumped in the ratings. ”It does give the show a big boost,” says Hope executive producer John Tinker. ”It was a calculated risk that we could get people to start watching our show.” No stranger to cast departures, 90210 relies on a steady stream of new characters to maintain momentum. Notes executive producer Jessica Klein: ”The audience is not looking for somebody to walk out the door; they’re looking to find out what happens in the story that takes them out the door.”

3 Divide and conquer? Maybe it’s better to stay put. As the networks relocate hits to drum up business on weak nights (as NBC successfully moved Frasier to Tuesdays last season), some veterans have suffered. Martin slipped by more than 35 percent when switched to Saturdays. ”I had believed there was an urban ethnic audience available, but the calculation didn’t pay off,” admits Fox entertainment prez John Matoian, who last month bumped the show back to Sundays, where it aired two seasons ago. Mad About You also faltered (dropping from No. 12 to No. 22) when it was moved to Sundays, while CBS’ two-pronged offensive — Cybill to Sundays and Murder, She Wrote to Thursdays — left both shows bloodied.

4 Comedians shouldn’t automatically get shows named after themselves. Aside from Friends rip-offs, the big trend of the fall was The (insert comedian name here) Show. ”I’ve got an ego as big as anybody else’s,” jokes stand-up-turned-TV star Drew Carey. ”Why can just Seinfeld have a show named after himself?” Because he’s got the ratings, unlike this latest trio of comics: The Drew Carey Show (No. 48), The Bonnie Hunt Show (No. 102 and on hiatus), and The Jeff Foxworthy Show (No. 69). ”The advantage to [self-billing] is that it distinguishes the show from all the generic titles,” says CBS’ Moonves. ”The disadvantage is that people say, ‘Why are they naming shows after somebody I haven’t heard of?’ ” Tony Danza opted to call his new sitcom Hudson Street, instead of The Tony Danza Show as ABC had suggested (”It just felt a little presumptuous,” he says) —and, at No. 21, it’s one of the few rookie hits.

5 The audience forgoes familiar faces in unfamiliar roles. And the winners in this category are Blossom‘s Joey Lawrence as a sensitive paternal figure in Brotherly Love, thirtysomething‘s Patricia Wettig as a hard-nosed judge in Courthouse, and Mary Tyler Moore as an austere editor in New York News. ”People certainly raised the question ‘Will they or won’t they accept [Moore in the role]?’ ” says News executive producer Ian Sander. The answer: They didn’t. While News and Courthouse have received death sentences, Brotherly Love has sunk to No. 102.

6 Fox needs to find its funny bone. ”This isn’t a place that has ever manufactured instant hits,” says Matoian, rationalizing Fox’s lack of recent sitcom successes. But even Matoian must be growing impatient, considering that 1987’s Married…With Children and 1989’s The Simpsons are still Fox’s top-rated comedies (1992’s wacky Melrose Place doesn’t count). This season, Misery Loves Company (No. 95) and The Preston Episodes (No. 109) were shelved early, while the combined audience of Too Something (No. 87), Partners (No. 104), and Ned and Stacey (No. 106) barely equals that of the allegedly comedic Coach on ABC. Think Jim Carrey would sign on for a revival of In Living Color?

7 It’s 8 o’clock. Do you know where your adult comedies’ ratings are? Two things happened as adult shows pushed into the ”family hour.” First, the word penis received unprecedented early airtime. And second, series that migrated from later time periods generally couldn’t hold viewers. (That went for freshmen programs, too: Andrew Clay’s new CBS series, Bless This House — No. 71 — was a little too mouthy for the 8 p.m. audience.) Ellen (No. 29) and Roseanne (No. 16) lost 19 and 13 percent of their viewers, respectively, while Cybill (No. 53) and Mad About You were upstaged by the kid-winning Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman (No. 17). Only Friends can claim better ratings. ”Network TV has swung the pendulum too far toward adult comedies at 8,” admits ABC’s Harbert. Echoes NBC’s Littlefield: ”We don’t want to abandon the family comedy business.” Yeesh. Sounds like more Urkel is on the way.

Dan Snierson, with additional reporting by Kristen Baldwin