Lessons for boosting tv ratings -- EW offers tips to CBS, ABC, and NBC for making the fall season a successful one

By Bruce Fretts
Updated December 16, 1994 at 05:00 AM EST

When David Letterman bellows, ”We’re carrying this dump!” he’s only half- joking. Dave’s top-rated Late Show is one of the true bright spots on CBS’ schedule. The network’s victory in the November sweeps was powered by nostalgic TV movies and miniseries Rockford Files: I Still Love L.A. and Scarlett. But CBS doesn’t have a single series in the top five, and its three highest-rated shows are graying: 60 Minutes (7th), Murder, She Wrote (10th), and Murphy Brown (13th) have been on the air for a combined total of 42 years.

Meanwhile, ABC has overtaken three-time defending champion CBS as the No. 1 network and, more important, leads with the 18-to-49-year-old audience that advertisers crave. CBS is a distant third (tied with Fox) among these viewers. ”We’ve done a very good job of appealing to 60-year-olds. Now it’s time to reposition ourselves,” says CBS senior veep Steven D. Warner. ”There are a lot of 35- to 40-year-olds working here, and we want to put on shows we want to watch.”

As CBS shakes up its schedule in an attempt to regain ratings momentum, there are lessons to be gleaned from the current TV season:

Two shows can thrive in the same time slot. The heavily hyped Tuesday showdown between ABC’s Home Improvement and NBC’Frasier has proven to be a major draw, as Tim Allen’s tool-com has held on to its No. 1 status, and Kelsey Grammer’s Cheers spin-off ranks a solid 11th for the season. ”Home Improvement skews younger because sitcoms with children appeal to children,” explains media analyst David Davis of Paul Kagan Associates. ”As long as you appeal to slightly different demographics, it’s possible for two shows to be very successful and profitable in the same time slot.”

More than two shows can’t. There’s a pileup on Mondays from 8 to 9 p.m., as CBS’ The Nanny (24th) and Dave’s World (19th) win overall, while Fox’s Melrose Place cleans up among 18- to 34-year-olds. But NBC’s onetime top 20 staples The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air and Blossom have tumbled to 43rd and 44th, and ABC’s longtime top 10 resident Coach has fallen to 58th. Says Fresh exec producer Gary H. Miller, ”We’ve been the reigning king — or prince — of that time slot, so the other networks have really counterprogrammed against us. It’s probably the most competitive time slot on television right now.

The drama is alive and well. ”Those sages of network habits said, ‘The drama is dead,’ ” gloats NBC Entertainment prez Warren Littlefield. ”Whenever you hear something’s dead, you know there’s a great opportunity to spin that around and have a big hit.” Enter NBC’s ER (6th), which chased CBS’ new hospital drama, Chicago Hope (52nd), out of its Thursday-at-10 slot. ABC’s NYPD Blue (5th) and NBC’s Law & Order (33rd) have also shown dramatic ratings increases this fall.

Sometimes, no news is good news. The saturation point has been reached for newsmags. ABC will reduce Turning Point (55th) to a series of specials, and CBS’ Eye to Eye With Connie Chung (80th) is in a coma. ABC’s PrimeTime Live (66th) and CBS’ 48 Hours (77th) have plummeted due to head-to-head competition with other news shows. ”They’re tripping over each other to present new facets of the same stories,” says ABC VP Alan Sternfeld. Three words: location, location, location. The four highest-rated new series of the season all enjoy choice positions: Friends (17th), Madman of the People (15th), and ER are part of NBC’s venerable Thursday lineup, while ABC’s Me and the Boys (14th) resides cozily between Full House and Home Improvement on Tuesday. ”We like to treat a new show like a delicate little organism,” says ABC’s Sternfeld. ”We nourish it and give it a protected opportunity to flourish.”

New blood can bring new life. Jimmy Smits steps in for David Caruso, Sam | Waterston replaces Michael Moriarty, and Tiffani-Amber Thiessen takes over for Shannen Doherty; NYPD Blue, Law & Order, and Beverly Hills, 90210 (36th) enjoy their most successful seasons ever. These moves work best, says Davis, ”when you bring in someone who has an audience from another program,” such as L.A. Law grad Smits or Saved by the Bell alum Thiessen.

Familiar faces can breed contempt. The CBS sitcom Daddy’s Girls had a life that — like its star, Dudley Moore — was nasty, British, and short. Other big names attracted small crowds on NBC as Martin Short’s skit-com was pulled after three airings, Gene Wilder’s Something Wilder (103rd) flopped on Saturdays, and even Bill Cosby has struggled with The Cosby Mysteries (56th). Audiences are flocking to fresh faces on shows like Friends and ABC’s Ellen (9th). ”The idea that we could use actors who we just loved and not have to go for big names was very exciting,” says Friends executive producer Marta Kauffman.

Even NFL fans won’t watch bombs. Fox has ”a tremendous opportunity to speak to an audience of men who watch football on Sunday afternoons,” says network programming exec Dan McDermott, but it fumbled on Sunday nights with the James Bond manque Fortune Hunter, the major-league strikeout Hardball, and the sleaze-com Wild Oats, all of which were quickly canned. At least Fox still has football, which is more than CBS can say. (With reporting by Dan Snierson)