What’s even scarier than Roseanne running around in a bra and sweatpants? If you’re a network executive, this year’s Nielsens. Try what they might (hyped-to-the-hilt comebacks, X-Files wannabes, Tammy Faye Bakker Messner guest appearances), the Big Four continue to hemorrhage viewers: The total network audience is down 5 percent so far this fall.
Of course, at mid-season, some of these apparent dinosaurs are faring better than others. NBC has the most reason for holiday cheer: After its eighth-in-a-row sweeps victory, the Peacock is easily holding on to its first-place position, thanks largely to those unstoppable Thursday nights. The battle for second place, however, is surprisingly close. Last year’s third-ranked CBS has a slight edge (although the average viewer’s age remains distressingly high), while ABC is struggling with a slate of aging hits. And upstart Fox, though still in fourth place, did hit a ratings home run with its coverage of the World Series.
For a more detailed map of the prime-time peaks and valleys, EW has broken down the schedule night by night. Our midterm report follows.
This season, network execs have found that, as in pro sports, you can buy respectability but not necessarily the championship. CBS spent a fortune signing Bill Cosby and Ted Danson in the hope that the sitcom vets would jump-start a CBS revival. But while Cosby (15) and Ink (32) consistently win the 8-9 p.m. time slot, neither show has delivered numbers that equal the original fanfare. (After premiering at No. 6, Cosby usually ranks in the 20s.) But given the millions spent, CBS Entertainment president Les Moonves is prepared to be patient: ”There have been no new 8:00 shows in the top 10 in 10 years,” he argues.
Younger viewers may not be as patient as Moonves. Both Cosby and Ink are drawing fewer 18- to 49-year-olds than their time-slot predecessors (The Nanny, Can’t Hurry Love) a year ago. NBC’s revamped Jeff Foxworthy Show and fledgling Mr. Rhodes, while running second in total viewers, usually outstrip the CBS duo among the same demographic. But the real winner here looks to be the renovated Melrose Place (57), which has beaten all competitors among adults 18 to 49. For Fox Entertainment prez Peter Roth, that takes some of the sting out of two early cancellations. ”Frankly, I didn’t think the shows were very good,” he admits of Lush Life and Party Girl.
After 9, the behemoth to beat is ABC’s Monday Night Football (7). Unfortunately, few sports fans are bothering with its East Coast lead-in, the high school drama Dangerous Minds (83). ”In a perfect world, there would be a show that football viewers would watch,” says ABC scheduling VP Jeff Bader, although even the sports-com Coach didn’t have much success in this spot. ”A large part of the football audience are not regular TV viewers to begin with.” Which means once football ends, don’t expect a noticeable upsurge in ratings for the female-friendly competition: CBS’ Murphy Brown (22), Cybill (26), and Chicago Hope (38).
Just a few steps up the cellar stairs from the WB dramas (7th Heaven and Savannah are tied at 133) perches UPN’s lineup: NBC transplant In the House (117), Goode Behavior (126), Sparks (129), and the Malcolm-Jamal Warner comeback vehicle Malcolm & Eddie (112). In urban markets, the sitcoms sometimes top their time periods: Malcolm, for example, has beaten Ink in Houston and Detroit. ”There are some major success stories in some of these major cities,” says UPN Entertainment prez Michael Sullivan. Even so, with Malcolm miles away from the top 10, Warner must long for the days he played a Huxtable. Then again, so might Cosby.
With powerful sitcom blocks on ABC and NBC from 8 to 10 p.m., there’s little left for the other networks. At 8 o’clock, NBC’s Mad About You has driven the final nail into Roseanne‘s coffin. Some may argue it’s a case of creative suicide, as Roseanne has turned her ABC show into a surreal mess. But you’ve got to give Paul Reiser and Helen Hunt credit; NBC moved Mad to its fifth night in as many years, and it keeps on ticking. ”It has been this phenomenal workhorse,” says NBC honcho Warren Littlefield, who applauds the show’s pregnancy plot: ”It seems to be, no pun intended, a new life for the show.”
Roseanne even got beaten twice by CBS’ new Promised Land, a Touched by an Angel spin-off starring Gerald McRaney. Though it ranks 49th, Land is up 20 percent over The Client, which it replaced. CBS is quick to point out that Angel was also a slow starter. ”We’re in it for the long haul,” says Eye chief Les Moonves, who has ordered a full season of Land.
There’s no clear victor between the two new family comedies, NBC’s Something So Right (with Mel Harris) and ABC’s Life’s Work (with stand-up comic Lisa Ann Walter), at 8:30. Early in the season, Something took the lead, but then Work started coming on strong. ”It has to be a reaction to Something So Right,” ABC scheduling VP Jeff Bader said at the time. ”That doesn’t sound nice, but we’ve picked up and they’ve gone down.” Bader may have spoken too soon: In recent weeks, Something has once again pulled ahead.
Frasier continues to eat into Home Improvement‘s lead for ABC at 9, even as Kelsey Grammer’s rehab stint forced NBC to air a nearly Frasier-free episode during sweeps. But the big surprise for NBC has been at 9:30, where Caroline in the City has held up well against ABC’s heavily promoted Spin City. In a battle of Back to the Future stars, Caroline has pulled into a dead heat with Spin City in recent weeks. Littlefield calls Caroline Tuesday’s ”true unsung hero.” The same could be said of UPN’s 8 p.m. offering, Moesha, which by that network’s standards is a hit. The subsequent Homeboys in Outer Space and the sci-fi schlock-fest The Burning Zone, however, have all but crashed and burned.
At 10, ABC still stands tall with NYPD Blue, thanks to a strong adult lead-in from Spin City. ”With Mike’s show, we’ve found a nice complement,” says Jimmy Smits, whose cop drama ranks 10th, topping Dateline NBC. Maybe if Stone Phillips bared his ass…
Everybody’s a comedian on Wednesdays — only network execs have stopped chuckling. The season kicked off with an eye-popping 16 sitcoms crammed onto the night’s schedule, but the laugh-track glut has yielded a fragmented audience and just one standout hit.
The Peacock, for one, got a little lesson in humility. NBC had boasted that Wednesday would be the latest in its Must See TV juggernaut, but the massively hyped Men Behaving Badly is doing just mediocrely (67), and the show’s companions — NewsRadio (64), Wings (72), and the just-canceled John Larroquette Show (73) — didn’t fare much better. ”We know we don’t have a powerhouse lineup,” admits NBC Entertainment prez Warren Littlefield, who has yet to announce the expected time-slot shakeup. ”But we have long-term players in Men and NewsRadio.”
ABC, at least, has one reason to celebrate: Last season’s nearly canceled 9:30 Drew Carey Show has become a bona fide hit (up from 48 to 16), crushing Men and earning the more high-profile 9 p.m. spot. ”We really are a water-cooler show,” says executive producer Bruce Helford. ”And word of mouth has finally caught on.” Carey, however, is the only Wednesday sitcom brewing up viewers for ABC: Despite the tidal wave of will-she-or-won’t-she rumors, Ellen (54) has flagged 27 percent; Grace Under Fire (20, down 19 percent) isn’t aging gracefully; and Molly Ringwald (whose Townies ranks 62nd) has joined this year’s ’80s-comebacks-that-never-were heap.
CBS cut its losses early, pulling the plug on the revamped Almost Perfect, Steven Bochco’s laugh-starved Public Morals, and the edgy EZ Streets (which will relaunch in the spring), replacing them with better-performing movies. ”We’re disappointed because this was our opportunity to go a little more experimental,” says CBS Entertainment prez Les Moonves. ”Maybe our audience isn’t looking for that.” CBS need only refer to its 8-9 p.m. offerings for proof: The warm and fuzzy Nanny and Pearl consistently win their time slots.
In the drama department, Fox stalwart Beverly Hills, 90210 has fallen off slightly (58), while critics’ darling Party of Five continues to win the coveted 18-to-34-year-old set (83). And ABC’s PrimeTime Live (32) and NBC’s Law & Order (35) are in a close race for the 10 p.m. crown.
UPN got some mixed news: Star Trek: Voyager (107) beamed down 24 percent from last year, while its lead-in, The Sentinel (114), shot up 28 percent. Meanwhile, The WB’s sitcom block, though garnering teensy ratings, has undergone surprising growth (The Wayans Bros., tied at 114, is up 16 percent). At least some execs can afford to laugh.
Q: What do you do when an express train comes barreling down the track? A: Get on any other track — fast. That just about sums up the philosophy of the networks that have to compete against NBC’s unstoppable Must See TV Express, with five of the season’s top six shows: ER, Seinfeld, Suddenly Susan, Friends, and The Single Guy.
So what viewers are left for the other networks to pick up? Grandpa and grandma? ”The type of show you can put there and do very well with [has] old appeal,” confirms ABC scheduling vice president Jeff Bader. ”There is a 50-plus audience that’s available, but unfortunately, that doesn’t do anything for what we have on.” That’s for sure: DreamWorks’ High Incident continues to have low impact (90, followed closely by 10 p.m. neighbor Turning Point at 93), while the smartly recast Murder One sadly loses ground with each passing week. Can a death sentence be far behind? ”Actually, it deserves a better time period,” says Bader. ”Unfortunately, we don’t have one [available] on our network.”
So what is everyone else watching? Dramas on CBS. Dick Van Dyke’s Diagnosis Murder and the new Peter Strauss cop drama, Moloney, are still doing far better than CBS’ Thursday performance last year. ”Right now we’re playing for a nice solid second,” says CBS Entertainment president Les Moonves, ”and we get that.”
Another counterstrategy is to court viewers who think that those neurotic single guys and gals with friends are just a bunch of honkies. Fox continues to avoid Thursday annihilation with its black- and Hispanic-friendly lineup of Martin, Living Single, and New York Undercover.
If it’s any consolation to the competing networks, NBC’s Suddenly Susan hasn’t proved to be an unqualified smash—any more than The Single Guy has following Friends—and both sitcoms consistently lose a chunk of viewers from their lead-in shows. ”The Single Guy is still a work in progress,” says NBC Entertainment president Warren Littlefield of the sophomore sitcom. ”The good news on Suddenly Susan is, we see today what Caroline in the City [which aired after Seinfeld last season] is capable of accomplishing, and Susan is holding on to more of the Seinfeld audience than Caroline did.” Besides, if the Thursday-night lineup were any more compelling, when would we get to raid the fridge?
Who says ABC’s TGIF lineup lacks irony? Certainly not the producers of Sabrina, the Teenage Witch. ”I saw an ad in a magazine before the season started, and three quarters of the page was Clueless,” says Sabrina creator Nell Scovell. ”They put us in the corner.” Oops. Sabrina—ranked 31 out of 134 shows in total viewers — became Friday night’s only breakout hit. Consistently building on its Family Matters lead-in, it was moved from 8:30 to anchor 9 p.m. after only three airings. ”Sabrina is the little show that could,” says ABC scheduling VP Jeff Bader, adding that the network moved the show to 9 because numbers indicate adults watch too. Meanwhile, Clueless (48) is ABC’s weak link. In addition to moving it to 9:30, the network has brought in new exec producer Tim O’Donnell to make it, in Bader’s words, ”more overtly funny.”
Fox’s decidedly unfunny Millennium continues in The X-Files‘ tradition of earning a victory in the key adults 18-49 demographic, despite scaring away almost 6 million viewers between its premiere and its second episode. Its lead-in, Sliders, still pleases Fox by winning the male 18-49 demo, but Fox Entertainment prez Peter Roth bristles when asked about Millennium‘s descent: ”Of course it dropped off substantially. We knew it would. The fact is, Millennium is working.”
As is NBC’s lineup (Unsolved Mysteries, Dateline, and Homicide), which remains a solid counterprogramming block. CBS’ Nash Bridges, however, has beaten Homicide six times, much to producer Tom Fontana’s chagrin: ”I can’t believe we’re not beating Bridges. Not to take anything away from it, but come on!”
Since the rest of its lineup isn’t faring as well, CBS is no doubt grateful for Bridges‘ success. While network execs say their ratings are up 18 percent in households and 15 percent in adults 18-49, they’ve already pulled the widely unseen action drama Mr. & Mrs. Smith — to be replaced by erstwhile NBC drama JAG in January. And shamefully, the network continues to allow its charming 8:30 offering, Everybody Loves Raymond (87), to languish after veteran stinker Dave’s World. ”They haven’t had a hit in this slot since Gomer Pyle,” laments Raymond exec producer Phil Rosenthal. Still, CBS Entertainment president Les Moonves calls Raymond ”a keeper,” although he doesn’t see a move in the show’s future: ”Unfortunately, I only have one 8:30 Monday slot.” Yeah, but not everybody loves Ink.
A PC frontier physician, a very timely newspaper, and a butt-whupping law-enforcement officer may not seem like a winning programming formula, but don’t tell that to CBS’ rivals, all of which are choking on the Eye network’s heartland-drama dust. Last season’s faithfuls — Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman and Walker, Texas Ranger — anchored the eve while Early Edition sold out Touched by an Angel‘s former time slot at 28, making it this fall’s highest-rated new drama. ”We were surprised that the audience went for the whimsicality and magic of a story that’s neither sci-fi nor reality,” says delighted Early Edition executive producer Bob Brush. ”It’s an experiment that seems to have caught on.” Also in the dabbling mood was NBC, which tried bolstering last season’s least successful night (JAG, The Home Court, Sisters) with a trio of foreboding dramas: Dark Skies, The Pretender, and Profiler. Viewership jumped 17 percent among 18-to-49-year-old adults. ”Our goal was to move up from fourth to second,” says NBC Entertainment president Warren Littlefield. ”That’s something we’ve not only accomplished — now we’re giving CBS a run for its money.”
At Fox, they were also running — but only for cover: Back-to-back airings of Cops produced arrested development; Married…With Children separated from 29 percent of its old audience, forcing a move back to Sundays; and its companion, Love and Marriage, had its license revoked after just two weeks. ”It was ill conceived from the start to put those shows together — a big, broad parody with a reality-based family comedy,” laments Fox Entertainment president Peter Roth, who ended up replacing the sluggish sitcom block with a revived America’s Most Wanted.
ABC’s schedule, however, was positively criminal, offering a mishmash of underwhelming programming that included ponderous family fare (Second Noah, canceled at 99), silly jock humor (Coach, on hiatus at 94), stilted legal wit (Common Law, sentenced to death at 104), and the bordering on sappy (Relativity, 100). ”If Second Noah had gotten the family audience, Coach would have done fine,” says ABC scheduling vice president Jeff Bader. ”Coach and Relativity were lead-in challenged.” Don’t throw in the towel yet, Coach potatoes: The show that just won’t die may end up rearing its balding head on a new night later this season.
There were so many returning series making vaunted moves to Sunday this season, the evening should have been sponsored by U-Haul. CBS paired ratings warhorse 60 Minutes with the freshly transplanted Touched by an Angel and watched Angel soar to a heavenly 9th place. ”We hated [last year’s] drop-off from 60 Minutes to Cybill,” says CBS Entertainment president Les Moonves. ”We realized they were incompatible. Touched brings back the people who were fans of Murder, She Wrote.” On NBC, 3rd Rock From the Sun also firmed up its status as a time-slot-blind success when it rocketed from last season’s cozy Tuesday orbit. Too bad its otherworldly power hasn’t rubbed off on Boston Common, whose move flamed out at 39 (down from last season’s 8th place). ”We had this fear that we’d be lost in the shuffle and stuck in Sunday-night oblivion,” says 3rd Rock star Kristen Johnston. ”Now we feel that with the exception of being put on Sunday mornings at 10, we’re pretty much golden.”
While 3rd Rock, Touched, and The Simpsons all survived the critical 8 p.m. shoot-out, The WB was firing blanks like The Parent ‘Hood and The Steve Harvey Show. And ABC’s Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman took a critical hit, losing 34 percent of its viewers despite the much-hyped wedding story line. ”We’re getting hit from both ends,” admits ABC scheduling VP Jeff Bader of 3rd Rock‘s and Touched‘s sudden presence. ”[Lois & Clark‘s] producers will now have to work to make an exciting show with the main couple being married.” Fox, meanwhile, is facing a similar challenge with sophomore sitcom Ned and Stacey, which debuted softly in the post-Simpsons slot. Perhaps viewers are just taking a potty break, because by 9, they’re back in record numbers for The X-Files, which easily survived its move from Friday; indeed, it grabbed 7 percent more viewers (more bad news for The WB’s Unhappily Ever After and Life With Roger, at 117 and 129). Fox’s strategy was ”smart,” concedes NBC Entertainment prez Warren Littlefield, whose network’s competing flick-of-the-week isn’t doing as well as last season. ”I don’t think there’s any question it was the riskiest gambit of the year,” declares Fox Entertainment president Peter Roth. ”Rewards go to the bold.” At least most of the time. Big Deal, Fox’s ballsy attempt at resuscitating the prime-time game show, folded at 123. Although the network says it’s planning to bring back Deal in ’97, two words come to mind: Game over.