WINTER WONDERS AND BLUNDERS
HOW NBC AND ABC SNOWED UNDER CBS, AND OTHER LESSONS OF THE TV SEASON 'HOMICIDE' AND 'ER' ARE COOL; 'ROSEANNE' AND 'NORTHERN EXPOSURE' ARE COLD
What a difference a year makes. Last March, CBS was basking in its Olympic- size February sweeps triumph and coasting toward its third straight seasonal ratings crown. Meanwhile, NBC was flailing in third place, and its long-solid Thursday-night slate was showing serious signs of erosion thanks to the past-its-prime L.A. Law. Cut to 1995. CBS ties Fox for third in February among the coveted 18-to-49 crowd, and network prez Howard Stringer flees to work for a consortium of phone companies. NBC snares a sweeps victory, led by its new Thursday steamroller, ER. And with the strongest seven-night schedule, ABC is poised to succeed CBS as the season’s overall ratings champ. Here’s what the networks have learned from the winter of CBS’ discontent:
*Tim Allen has room for improvement. NBC’s Seinfeld has surpassed ABC’s Home Improvement as the No. 1 sitcom in recent weeks, due to the fierce competition between Allen’s ABC show and NBC’s Frasier on Tuesdays and the sheer power of NBC’s Thursday lineup (which also includes Mad About You, Friends, and ER). In its sixth season, Seinfeld seems an unlikely candidate for a surge, but as executive producer George Shapiro notes, ”For the first three years, very few people were watching. It’s like the third season for a lot of the audience, so it’s still kind of fresh.”
*It’s a bird, it’s a plane it’s a hit (finally). After a nearly two-season- long tussle, ABC’s Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman has at last soared above NBC’s seaQuest DSV on Sundays. Sci-fi fans (i.e., young males) seem to have grown tired of the endless tinkering with the Spielberg-produced sub series. ”Lois & Clark has always been pretty successful with kids and teens and women,” says ABC exec Alan Sternfeld. ”And now it seems like men have grown disenchanted with the time-period alternatives.”
*They shoot, they score! Both NBC’s Homicide: Life on the Street and The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air fired up their biggest ratings of the season with episodes in which characters were shot. ”I hope you don’t need blood and guts to draw an audience,” says Homicide executive producer Henry Bromell, who notes that the ratings haven’t plummeted following the shooting scene. Not to be outdone, CBS’ low-rated Under Suspicion ended its season with a bang by gunning down Karen Sillas’ Det. Rose Phillips.
*Not everyone watches 60 Minutes. ”I think the reason we’re doing so well is no one gets hit in the crotch on 60 Minutes,” explains America’s Funniest Home Videos host Bob Saget of his ABC reality show’s surprising strength on Sundays opposite CBS’ top 10 newsmag. ”If Andy Rooney would just fall over in his chair or have a monkey jump on his head, then 60 Minutes’ ratings would definitely peak.” Now there’s talk that ABC, which has been running two Videos half hours against 60 Minutes, may expand the show to an hour next season. Saget should have the spare time; ABC has decided not to renew his sitcom, Full House.