Ratings War The Networks Have Started Their Annual Battle To Get To The Top Of The Heap
After an exceptionally patient first half, network programmers will start tearing apart their prime-time lineups from now until the end of the official 30-week season in midApril.
They’re not only trying to improve their ratings in what has turned out to be a very close struggle for bragging rights, but also will be trying to test all kinds of new programs and scheduling experiments before May, when they must set their lineups for next fall.
Right now ABC is leading defending champion CBS in overall viewership - the so-called “household” ratings reported each week in most newspapers - but is locked in a real battle with NBC for No. 1 in the more important category of viewership among adults ages 18-49, the most prized demographic group among advertisers. CBS lags far behind in this category.
Meanwhile, Fox, which broadcasts only 15 hours a week against 22 for each of the Big Three, is making gains in overall viewership and may even end the season beating CBS among young adults.
This downhill race to season’s end means viewers may have their TV-watching habits disturbed considerably. But the trade-off is they’ll be getting a chance to pick favorites from a slew of new shows.
ABC, CBS and Fox already have added new shows and made schedule changes, but many more new series were previewed for TV editors here over the past two weeks, to give us a taste of what’s coming for our readers over the next three months.
Based on our previews, NBC will have the best new crop of shows this spring, but that doesn’t mean it has an edge coming down to the wire. Here’s a sneak peek at the new shows:
“Extreme” is an outdoor action series about a mountain rescue team whose members live on “the cutting edge” of extreme danger. Filmed in the Crater Peak mountains of Utah, “Extreme” stars James Brolin and a cast of young new faces. It’s a beautifully shot program, but it has nothing you haven’t seen in all those Robert Conrad mountain rescue shows on NBC. ABC will “preview” the show in the coveted time slot right after the Super Bowl, but it won’t become a regular series until March, when it replaces “Matlock” in the Thursday 8-9 p.m. hour currently held by “My So-Called Life.”
“The Marshal” is a one-hour action show starring Jeff Fahey as a contemporary U.S. marshal tracking down federal fugitives. This is a routine action show without real bite, hampered by television’s turn away from realistic violence. Sneak preview will be Tuesday in the “NYPD Blue” time slot. Premieres Saturday, Feb. 4, in the 10-11 p.m. time slot now occupied by “The Commish,” which moves to Thursdays at 9.
“Bringing Up Jack” is ABC’s attempt to tailor a sitcom for standup comedian Jack Gallagher, who plays a Philadelphia sports-talk radio star. Jack’s wife, Ellen (Harley Jane Kozak), is expecting their first child and has two other children from an earlier marriage. I found this one dull and unfunny and Gallagher anemic in the charisma department. Look for it by mid-March.
“The Office” is an ensemble comedy set in a corporate office. Valerie “Rhoda” Harper is the veteran star who’s surrounded by several promising newcomers. This has potential but doesn’t look like anybody’s pick for a breakaway hit. Expect it by March.
“The Wright Verdicts” is a courtroom drama from Dick Wolf, the maker of “Law & Order,” starring Tom Conti as one of the nation’s biggest legal superstars, who specializes in “high profile” cases. This didn’t light any fires for me, but maybe I’ve just seen too many lawyer shows. March or April.
“Under One Roof” is a rarity - a serious, dramatic hour with a mostly black cast. It’s also very promising because it doesn’t fall into any of the usual TV formulas. James Earl Jones is the patriarch of a multigenerational family living in a large home in Seattle. His son (Joe Morton) and daughter-in-law (Vanessa Bell Calloway) share one floor with their children while Jones, a widowed police officer, shares another floor with his daughter (Monique L. Ridge) and a troubled foster son (Merlin Santana). Looks very good, but you may not see it until April.
“Under the Hood” is a sitcom starring George “Cheers” Wendt and Pat Finn as brothers who host a weekly radio show called “Points & Plugs” but who range wildly toward other topics when on the air. This wasn’t available for preview. Likely for April.
“VR 5” is an effects-filled sciencefiction action hour starring Lori Singer - she was the tall, striking cellist in the original TV cast of “Fame” - as a young woman who explores her haunted past and handles special assignments for a mysterious “Committee” by tapping into the bizarre “fifth level” of computer-driven virtual reality. Fox has overhauled the premiere episode, so only a demo reel was shown to TV editors. It looks as exciting as it is confusing. David McCallum (“The Man From U.N.C.L.E.”) plays Singer’s dead father, and Oscar-winner Louise Fletcher (“One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest”) is her comatose mother, two characters who come to life in her VR 5 adventures. Figure it for March, probably replacing “MANTIS” as the 8-9 p.m. lead-in to “The X-Files.”
“Something’s Gotta Give” is a halfhour sitcom built around stand-up comic Lisa Ann Walter, who plays a wife, mother and career woman with a vivid imagination. Not ready for preview. Looks like an April tryout at the earliest.
“Medicine Ball” is another onehour medical drama, the fourth this season after a long drought. This one has a cast of talented unknowns, all playing first-year resident interns at Seattle’s Bayview Medical Center. Goofy, irreverent and pretty gamy, this aims for Fox’s young viewers and won’t move those already addicted to NBC’s “ER.” May come on line in March.
“Sliders” is the other one-hour science-fiction show vying for the Friday night spot everybody expects “MANTIS” to give up this season. Jerry O’Connell (“My Secret Identity”) is a grad student in physics who generates a “wormhole” into other dimensions with his computer array and somehow plunges himself, computer tech Sabrina Lloyd, physics professor John Rhys Davies and R&B; singer Cleavant Derricks into an endless “slide” through alternate versions of our world. Funny at times, inexcusably dumb at others. May turn up by March, depending on what Fox does with “VR 5.”
“Amazing Grace” is a one-hour drama starring Patty Duke as a divorced mom, formerly addicted to pills, who becomes the first female minister of a rural church in North Idaho (and filmed in Coeur d’Alene and Spokane). Helped by a friendly lawyer (Dan Lauria from “The Wonder Years”), she’s also under the sober scrutiny of dubious elders of her congregation and a skeptical cop (Joe Spano from “Hill Street Blues”). Not a cutting-edge show but certainly offbeat. Saturdays at 8 p.m. starting April 1.
“Hope & Gloria” is a half-hour sitcom with Cynthia Stevenson as naive Hope, who’s an aide to local TV talk-show host Alan Thicke, and her worldly wise new pal, beautician Jessica Lundy. Lundy and Stevenson are charming, and this is a fairly breezy comedy with sufficient wit. March or April.
“The Station” is a noisier, less droll “WKRP” set in an all-news radio station. Some funny stuff and a great ensemble, including Phil Hartman from “Saturday Night Live” as a conceited radio anchor. May be the pick of the midseason comedy litter, after CBS’s new “Cybill,” which is already a hit. Figure March.