”Sabrina, The Teenage Witch” and ”The Hughleys” — back to back entries last year on ABC’s sagging TGIF lineup — are now thriving on smaller networks. ”Sabrina” (Fri., 8 p.m., the WB) and ”The Hughleys” (Mon., 9 p.m., UPN) have reeled in record breaking ratings on the netlets this fall. What’s changed? Not the sitcoms themselves — but the way they appeal to their highly targeted audiences. ”The [major] networks are like department stores looking to program to the mass shopper,” says Tom Watson, research director at media buying firm Initiative Media. ”But the upstarts are like boutiques, providing a specific product to a specific clientele. For the WB, that’s younger audiences, and for UPN, it’s African Americans. These two shows are perfect for the boutique networks.”
The network swapping started when ABC’s once powerful Friday night scored lower and lower ratings during the 1999- 2000 season. While ”Sabrina” brought in decent numbers, averaging 10.2 million viewers a week, ”The Hughleys,” its follow up, drew only 8.5 million regular viewers — a 32 percent plunge from its strong ratings the previous season airing after ”Home Improvement.” ”As the whole Friday lineup continued to slip, ABC let the franchise go to seed,” says ”Hughleys” exec producer Bob Greenblatt. ”It was like being on a sinking ship.” (ABC had no comment for this story). By May, the network’s programming execs decided to throw out the family oriented night in favor of a male skewing lineup featuring ”Norm” and ”Two Guys and a Girl.” That left ”Sabrina” and ”Hughleys” without a home — until the WB and UPN struck deals with the two sitcoms’ production companies, creating matches made in Nielsen heaven.
”Sabrina,” which stars Melissa Joan Hart as the titular teenage witch, anchors the WB’s teen friendly Friday night. Now in its fifth season, ”Sabrina” averages 3.9 million viewers a week, a huge drop from its weekly estimates on ABC, but an improvement over its WB predecessor, ”The Jamie Foxx Show,” which attracted a mere 2.4 million people in the same time slot. In fact, ”Sabrina” is such a hit for the WB that two weeks ago it scored the network’s highest ever Friday night ratings. ”We’re delivering to WB an audience that is refreshing their entire lineup,” says Steve Gordon, the executive VP of creative affairs for Viacom, which produces ”Sabrina.”
The third season move for ”The Hughleys” has been equally successful. The series, based on African American comic D.L. Hughley’s experience of living in an affluent white neighborhood, was ”ABC’s lowest promoted show,” according to Greenblatt. On UPN, it’s tied for No. 1 in the ratings with ”The Parkers,” another Monday night sitcom, at 4.5 million viewers a week. ”It’s like a whole new light has shone on the show,” says Greenblatt.
But the real coup for both series isn’t the raw numbers they’re attracting, but the promotional push they get. Gordon and Greenblatt claim that ”ABC spent close to nothing” to plug their sitcoms in print and radio spots and network house ads. Now, they say, each show gets two or three on air promos a night and a lavish off network campaign. ”D.L. just got his first tall wall billboard the other day in Los Angeles. That would never have happened on ABC,” says Greenblatt. ”Sabrina”’s Hart is also benefiting from starring on a netlet. ”They’re going to do for Melissa what they’ve done for the kids on ‘Dawson’s Creek’ and so many other shows,” says Gordon. ”We know they’re going to help turn her into a movie star.”
Although ”Sabrina” and ”The Hughleys” are unlikely to reclaim the kind of ratings they won on ABC, that’s fine with their producers. ”Was it difficult going from the No. 1 new comedy on ABC to the most ignored comedy — yes,” says Greenblatt. ”But now we’re thrilled to be on a network that actually appreciates us and is committed to keeping the show a hit.” Besides, says Gordon, ”when your show is saved, supported, and publicized, how can you complain?” And is it a bit satisfying that ABC’s current Friday night, with freshman flops ”The Trouble With Normal” and ”Madigan Men,” is the lowest rated EVER? ”Hmmm. Should I be sad?” asks Greenblatt. No Bob, not at all.