This was the year network TV bottomed out. No huge hits. No buzz shows a la Ally McBeal. Not even any real controversy beyond the should-have-been-kept-secret Diary of Desmond Pfeiffer. Ratings fell for most, ad revenues climbed for some (NBC remains the sole moneymaker), and execs were shuffled like the decks at Bally’s casino. For all that, the season wasn’t a complete disaster. This coming fall, 10 freshmen shows will return, and that’s double what survived the 1997-98 season. Here’s what the nets (ranked in order of total viewers) did right and wrong.
TOTAL VIEWERS: 13 million* (down 7 percent)
ADULTS: 18-49 4.8 million* (down 9 percent)
Four years ago, CBS was in third place in viewers, had a for-sale sign on the door, had lost football, and was trying unsuccessfully to become the next Fox with fare like Central Park West. Now it’s first in viewers, thanks in large part to having football back, and is a solid success story in the eyes of Wall Street. As for continuing criticism regarding its older-skewing audience, media consultant Marc Berman points out that CBS is successful at doing exactly what The WB gets praised for: ”They both cast their shows in their images tremendously well.”
BEST MOVES: Shifting Everybody Loves Raymond to Mondays at 9 p.m. may not have seemed like a huge deal, but after Cybill destroyed that slot last year, it was a risk that paid off. (Not to mention that CBS sold Ray reruns for more than $3 mil per episode.) Launching two other strong comedies — The King of Queens and Becker — wasn’t too shabby either.
WORST MOVES: Wednesday nights remain a trouble spot: The thankfully canceled To Have & to Hold dragged an already tough night into the gutter, Maggie Winters never bloomed, and Payne sure lived up to its title.
TOTAL VIEWERS: 12.7 million (down 14 percent)
ADULTS: 18-49 6.7 million (down 18 percent)
Year 1 A.S. (After Seinfeld) saw the expected ratings drop-off as well as the loss of NBC’s No. 1 perch in total viewers. But the net can still crow about its No. 1 position with the key demo, 18- to 49-year-olds, thanks primarily to its powerful Thursday lineup — specifically Friends, Frasier, and ER. Nevertheless, says Jon Mandel, a media buyer at Grey Advertising, ”NBC has major programming problems, the biggest being that they don’t recognize they have these problems.” Hopefully, the new management, West Coast president Scott Sassa (replacing Don Ohlmeyer) and Entertainment prez Garth Ancier (replacing Warren Littlefield), will.
BEST MOVES: The mid-season launch of Providence not only gave NBC a surprise hit out of a largely panned drama, it attracted young women — MIA for years from Friday nights. And rewarding the most promising of their freshmen shows — the sitcom Will & Grace — with a Must See slot was a good thing, if too long coming. But, uh-oh, looks like Will & Co. are back in the boonies (Tuesdays at 9:30) this fall, with the mediocre Jesse reclaiming Thursdays at 8:30. Which brings us to…
WORST MOVES: Spending $66 million to keep Mad About You for one last season. ”The show was getting older, not funnier,” says Berman. Then again, this is the net that just renewed the always dreadful Veronica’s Closet.