Trash-talking cartoons, unisex bathrooms, and little networks giving the Big Four a spanking

By EW Staff
Updated May 29, 1998 at 04:00 AM EDT

Here’s how CBS TV President and CEO Leslie Moonves sums up the 1997-98 TV season: ”Not a year of great hits.” To be sure. The Big Four — which could boast only two breakouts with ABC’s Dharma & Greg and Fox’s Ally McBeal — kept plugging holes with newsmagazines (four Datelines, two 20/20s) and reality shows (ranging from Kids Say the Darndest Things to World’s Deadliest Swarms). Meanwhile, minor leaguers Comedy Central and The WB played hardball with such successes as South Park and Dawson’s Creek. So what lessons — besides ”beware of smart-mouthed kids” — can the networks learn from such a season? Read on…


At first glance, Ally McBeal (Calista Flockhart) and Dharma Finkelstein (Jenna Elfman) don’t have a lot in common with vampire slayer Buffy Summers (Sarah Michelle Gellar) and Star Trek: Voyager‘s Borgalicious babe, Seven of Nine (Jeri Ryan). Yet each of these eyeball-grabbing personalities made giant Nielsen leaps for womankind. Chicks also flexed their ratings muscle in syndication and cable with Lucy Lawless’ Xena: Warrior Princess and Peta Wilson’s La Femme Nikita. Says Ryan, whose steely presence — and skintight space suit — caused an immediate rise in Voyager‘s ratings pulse, ”It’s an exciting time for a woman to be in TV. Strong female characters were not, shall we say, overly numerous before this season.” But they will be afterward: Look for Ally and Buffy the Vampire Slayer clones on the nets’ fall schedules. ”We’re seeing an awful lot of pilots with strong female leads,” reports WB entertainment prez Garth Ancier, whose slate includes Felicity (described as ”Ally McBeal goes to college”) and Charmed (Shannen Doherty as a telekinetic witch).

EXCEPTION: Must She TV. NBC’s distaff Monday comedy lineup (including various combos of Suddenly Susan, Fired Up, Jenny, Caroline in the City, House Rules, and The Naked Truth) proved less popular than the Susan B. Anthony dollar. Only Susan and Caroline</i. are coming back.


The 1997-98 season came cocked and loaded with every imaginable take on men in blue: high-concept law enforcers (ABC’s sci-fi Timecop, NBC’s comedic Players), PIs (CBS’ Dellaventura), FBI suits (ABC’s C-16), prosecutors (CBS’ Michael Hayes), rent-a-cops (ABC’s Total Security), criminal psychologists (ABC’s Cracker), and, of course, your basic officers (CBS’ Brooklyn South). Too bad none managed to arrest many viewers. Hayes was the highest-rated show of the pack at No. 82 (!), and not one of the rookies will return this fall. So, why the poor showing? Three good reasons come to mind: NYPD Blue, Law & Order and Homicide: Life on the Street. ”They do it so damn well,” laments ABC entertainment chairman Stu Bloomberg, ”that if you’re going to introduce a new cop drama, you’d better be up to that caliber.” Of course, anytime you try to launch eight dramas of the same genre in one month’s time, fugeddaboudit. ”They didn’t distinguish themselves,” notes NBC entertainment president Warren Littlefield. ”With Players, we tried to offer a more lighthearted approach, a comedic yarn, but we couldn’t get past critical mass.”