TV's lowest-rated show

Exactly how bad are the ratings for the WB sitcom Nick Freno: Licensed Teacher? Take the viewers of ER, wipe out 90 percent of them with the Ebola virus … and ER still beats it! How about the population of the nation of Togo? Yup, bigger than Freno‘s audience.

For Pete’s sake, there are more Americans using outhouses than watching Freno!

Welcome to life at the bottom. During the ’96-97 TV campaign, Freno drew an average of 2.4 million viewers, good enough to rank it No. 155 … out of 155 network series. This season isn’t much better for the little engine that couldn’t: After a heroic climb to second-to-last place over The WB’s Unhappily Ever After (success, so cruel and fleeting!), Freno is again saddled with prime time’s most dubious distinction. ”We’re at the point where we’re going into negative viewership,” sighs Freno exec producer Marc Warren.

Freno‘s premise seems harmless enough: Mitch Mullany plays chuckleheaded Nick, who’s trying to educate inner-city students (think Dangerous Minds minus Pfeiffer — and the danger). And the tone is fuzzy-hearted enough to spell TGIF hit on ABC. But on the fledgling WB, it’s stifled by weak distribution and a wicked Sunday slot against 60 Minutes, ABC’s The Wonderful World of Disney, and Fox’s World’s Funniest Tsunamis specials.

”You have to pretend you’re writing Seinfeld,” says Freno exec producer Dennis Rinsler, who ran Full House with Warren. ”You work just as hard, and you think you’re doing as great a job — until the ratings. The WB always tries to put a positive spin on it: ‘Hey, we’re up 2 percent in criminals over 15!”’

Nothing like a little gallows humor to help dull the pain. ”You’ll be at the table when the numbers come in, and all the writers suddenly say, ‘Excuse me, I’m going to make a phone call to my agent,”’ says Rinsler. ”Gotta keep those options open.” Adds Warren: ”On Full House, all the relatives would say, ‘Can you get me pictures? Can you get me into a taping?’ Now my aunt calls: ‘I tried to find your show, but we don’t get Channel 93. When is it on again?”’

The better question is, Why is it on? In an era when shows get axed before hitting the air (Rewind, we never knew ye), Freno has managed to avoid the guillotine for a year. WB Entertainment chief Garth Ancier says it might be canceled next month, though he sees at least one reason to warrant a stay of execution: ”We believe in Mitch as a comedy-TV star.

” Even if Mitch needs the occasional tweak. ”We’ll spend hours discussing which shirt he should wear,” says Rinsler, ”because that could be the shirt that saves the show.” More concrete efforts to broaden viewership this season included switching from a middle school setting to high school (”I don’t know if you’ve ever fired five 12-year-olds, but it wasn’t the most pleasant day,” notes Warren) and injecting some Must See into the cast: Estelle Harris (Seinfeld‘s Mrs. Costanza) as a never-seen secretary and Jane Sibbett (Ross’ lesbian ex-wife on Friends) as the smarmy principal. ”I tease Jane all the time,” says Mullany. ”No matter what she asks for: ‘Can I get some water?’ ‘Oh! Miss Big Star wants some water! Well, we’re not on Friends anymore, Dorothy!”’