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'Law & Order', 'Friends' and TV's Other Champs & Chumps

A blow-by-blow of the fall’s hits and misses

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Just a few months into the 1999-2000 TV season, and here’s what we’ve learned: Regis Philbin plus $1 million equals network salvation. Two Guys and a Girl minus the pizza place is still not funny. And television for adults does not equal death (see burgeoning hits Judging Amy, The West Wing, Now and Again, and Family Law). Perhaps this new appreciation for maturity can explain one shocking development: Becker now draws more viewers than The Simpsons!

More shocking still: Overall, the news is pretty good for the networks. Despite the usual cancellations of fall shows (six so far and more to come), the viewer average for broadcast TV (50 million) did not drop off for the first time in six years. Who knows, maybe the threat of Y2K works in reverse when things are already a mess.

NBC

RANK Still No. 1, both with total viewers (a 14.1 million average for the season so far, up 7 percent) and with adults 18 to 49

NBC’s top spot belies a major problem: Its comedies are falling like leaves during a New England autumn—except this scene’s not so pretty. The Mike O’Malley Show was bagged, Suddenly Susan was pulled, and Veronica’s Closet, Jesse, and Stark Raving Mad continue to woefully under-perform. (Consider this: Two seasons ago, the Peacock was preening over its slate of 16 sitcoms; now that number stands at 8.) ”The comedy genre’s a graveyard,” declares Tim Spengler, director of national broadcast for Western Initiative Media. Fortunately, the drama picture looks much brighter: Two freshmen, The West Wing and Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, have made healthy debuts (averaging 16.9 million and 14.1 million, respectively). And the nasty ratings wedgies of the critically beloved Freaks and Geeks should end with a switch to Monday in January.

SMART MOVES The franchising of Law & Order (even better, in January the net will grant Dick Wolf’s wish to give SVU a more appropriate Friday-at-10-p.m. slot); yanking Suddenly Susan until a later date (our suggestion for when: never?).

DUMB MOVES Ladies and gentlemen…Mike O’Malley! Thinking Cold Feet could retain Providence‘s viewers (it didn’t, so buh-bye!). And bumping Will & Grace to Tuesday, where it’s beaten by ABC’s Dharma & Greg with 18- to 49-year-olds: Give this show a Thursday slot already, so there’s something to watch between Friends and ER.

MID-SEASON’S BEST BET Battery Park, a ”Barney Miller for the ’90s” from Spin City producer Gary David Goldberg.

CBS

RANK No. 2 with viewers (13.1 million—no change); No. 4 with adults 18 to 49 (down 3 percent)

While the other five nets spent their fortunes chasing male hipsters, the dear ol’ Tiffany banked on older females and was richly rewarded with two new hits: Judging Amy and Family Law. ”Programming dramas with female leads somehow struck a chord,” says Spengler. That’s not to say the Eye is blind to younger folk. Everybody Loves Raymond and The King of Queens both win their time slots with 18- to 49-year-olds; Friday’s edgy new drama Now and Again, about a government-engineered superhero, ties for first with Dateline NBC. Hey, if science can build a better man, can’t it rid the planet of Nash Bridges?

SMART MOVES Bravely sticking with their older demo, and getting chick-y with Amy and Family Law; replacing Cosby on Mondays at 8 p.m. with King of Queens; shipping the now-top 20 60 Minutes II to Tuesday.

DUMB MOVES Let’s see…there’s the chemistry-free romantic comedy Love or Money (expected back in early 2000), and there was the chemistry-free romantic comedy Work With Me (mercifully canceled), which, says Spengler, was the season’s ”worst show.”

MID-SEASON’S BEST BETS Steven Bochco’s hospital drama City of Angels; a small-screen version of Donnie Brasco dubbed Falcone.

ABC

RANK No. 3 with viewers (12.1 million, down 1 percent); No. 2 with adults 18 to 49 (no change)

Question: How do you turn around a struggling network? Answer: Reege! Thanks to the surprising success of a little summer show called Who Wants to Be a Millionaire, the November-sweeps-winning Alphabet is back in the game. The Practice has finally blossomed into a bona fide ratings hit. And though we hate to admit it, even Two Girls and a Guy regularly wins its time slot with 18- to 49-year-olds. On the other hand, ”The jury is still out on Snoops, and they have to be somewhat disappointed in some of their comedy choices,” says Paul Schulman of Schulman/Advanswers NY. Translation: Odd Man Out is fast headed in that direction, and Sports Night needs more than critical praise to stay in the game.

SMART MOVES Betting their bottom dollars on producers Craig Zadan and Neil Meron, who made the sweeps-ratings bonanza Annie; moving Dharma & Greg to 9 p.m. Tuesday (where it’s proved bad karma for Will & Grace); returning Monday Night Football to 9 p.m. so the West Coast can watch more of the game.

DUMB MOVES Getting all faux hip on us with Kevin Williamson’s aptly titled Wasteland; ruffling Bochco’s feathers by favoring emerging rookie Once and Again over longtime hit NYPD Blue. ”If [Practice creator] David E. Kelley were not behind Snoops,” believes Schulman, ”ABC might have moved Once and Again to Sundays at 9 and returned NYPD Blue in November.”

MID-SEASON’S BEST BET A psychiatric-ward drama from Chicago Hope vet Peter Berg (formerly titled Bellevue).

FOX

RANK No. 4 with viewers (9 million—down 19 percent!); No. 3 with adults 18 to 49 (down 18 percent!)

For a network that prides itself on ”distinctive” programming, here’s the one distinction Fox can claim this fall: Every one of its new shows was a ratings dud—Action, get real, Time of Your Life, Ally, and the already-canceled Harsh Realm. Furthermore, while the full-length Ally McBeal and That ’70S Show are solid building blocks for the future, dependable vets (The X-Files; Party of Five; Beverly Hills, 90210) inch precariously close to the end of their runs. ”Every year or two, people say Fox is poised to fall apart,” says TN Media’s Steve Sternberg. ”That said, Fox does have more problems than it ever had before.”

SMART MOVES Nixing Harsh Realm and Ryan Caulfield: Year One (which earned lower ratings than four UPN shows) before they did further damage on Fridays.

DUMB MOVES Not pairing Party of Five with its spin-off, Time of Your Life; spending too much effort promoting Action: ”It shortchanged the other new shows, which didn’t get that preseason hype,” says Sternberg.

MIDSEASON’S BEST BET The pressure is on for Malcolm in the Middle, a family sitcom already garnering critical raves.

WB

RANK No. 5 with viewers (4.3 million, down 9 percent) and adults 18 to 49 (down 11 percent)

The almost-five-year-old netlet is finally learning about growing pains off screen, thanks to across-the-board demo declines and the dismal performances of the truly awful animated comedy Mission Hill (The WB has yet to launch a hit sitcom) and the romantic drama Jack & Jill (suggested new title: Jack & Jill…and Katie Holmes!). To be fair, these dips aren’t entirely content related: The WB added another night of programming this year (Friday) and its shows are no longer airing on cable superstation WGN, which translated into an almost 10 percent drop in total distribution. And there are promising signs for the future: Its Buffy the Vampire Slayer spin-off, Angel, nearly bests Buffy; Roswell is building on its Dawson’s Creek lead-in; and—check this out—7th Heaven will likely finish the season in households as The WB’s first top 100 netlet show ever!

SMART MOVES Gold stars for the smart scheduling noted above. ”They’ve established really good progressions from one hour to the next,” says Sternberg.

DUMB MOVES Let’s see, what was dumber: shipping the smartly written Felicity to highly competitive Sunday (where it’s regularly walloped), or allowing star Keri Russell to get a haircut?

MID-SEASON’S BEST BETS Brutally Normal, originally developed at ABC as an hour-long single-camera drama. The WB quickly ordered eight eps at half an hour—the way the producers first wanted it.

UPN

RANK No. 6 with viewers (3.9 million, up 41 percent) and adults 18 to 49 (up 36 percent)

Frequently dismissed as the network where only the show titles (Homeboys in Outer Space, The Secret Diary of Desmond Pfeiffer, Shasta McNasty) are more pathetic than the ratings, UPN is experiencing a coming-of-age bump with body slams and figure-four leg locks. Bolstered by WWF Smackdown!, the netlet is up double digits in all key demos over last season. And though it still sits in the ratings basement, two nights are niche bonanzas: Monday’s lineup (including Moesha and The Parkers) has black viewers locked in; Wednesdays (7 Days and Star Trek: Voyager) are bait for young males with a penchant for sci-fi (a.k.a. geeks). One more bright spot: None of UPN’s new shows have been canceled—though offering only 10 hours of prime-time programming obviously helps.

SMART MOVE Repeat after us: The WWF. The WWF. The WWF….

DUMB MOVE Shifting Dilbert, the show that was supposed to revive UPN, to 8:30 p.m. on Tuesday, where it quickly plummeted to Nielsen’s penultimate spot in total viewers (that would be No. 127).

MID-SEASON’S BEST BET Tom Fontana’s latest cop drama, The Beat.

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