The new year is only a week old, and the networks are at work scrambling the 1997-98 prime-time schedule, which is barely 4 months old.
Of the 35 new shows that started the TV season, about a third are already dead or will be by the end of this month. Among the casualties: “The Tony Danza Show,” “Timecop,” “Over the Top,” “You Wish,” “Built to Last,” “413 Hope St.,” “The Visitor,” “Hitz,” “Head Over Heels,” “C16, Total Security” and “Sleepwalkers.”
CBS’ “Meego” has disappeared and is presumed dead. Fox’s “Living Single,” a 4-year-old comedy that got a new life after a series starring Scott Baio collapsed before its September debut, has been canceled again.
With all those holes in the lineup, the networks are trotting out a host of new shows over the next few months, along with a lot of one-shot specials. They’re also shuffling some current shows.
For example, ABC’s “The Practice” has moved from Saturdays to 10 p.m. Mondays, a shift that should help the excellent legal drama. Beginning Jan. 17, ABC’s “Cracker” and “Nothing Sacred,” both low-rated but critically praised, will appear back-to-back starting at 8 p.m. Saturdays - slots where “C16” and “Total Security” quickly died.
CBS is dropping a few shows, like “Cybill,” from the schedule for a while and subbing in new programs, like “Style & Substance,” which launched this week. CBS’ entire schedule will go out the window for two weeks in February while it broadcasts the Winter Olympics from Japan. When that’s over, expect the schedule to be shuffled again.
Other networks will be playing similar shell games as more shows are canceled and new programs come on line.
While there is no doubt that most of the shows to get the ax so far have deserved their fate, this frantic schedule shuffling does little to encourage viewers to tune in. Rather than surf the tube in frustration, viewers are just as likely to say the heck with it and tune out or go to cable channels, where you know you can find a movie or a rerun of an old favorite.
Nonetheless, the name of the game is hit shows, and the broadcast networks have a full menu of new offerings they hope will catch fire. A few appear fresh, but many have depressingly familiar premises and likely will have short lives as well.
Here’s a partial rundown on what’s coming up in the next few weeks and months:
“Lateline” (Debut not set): Having seen three episodes, I can strongly recommend this one. It’s by far the funniest new show of the season. Comic genius Al Franken (“Saturday Night Live”) has created a spoof on shows like ABC’s “Nightline,” complete with cameo appearances by real newsmakers. The result is a show that rivals “Murphy Brown” at its peak. It probably won’t appear until March.
“House Rules” (Debut not set): Three childhood friends - a woman and two guys - share an abode in Denver. Casey, the female part of the triumvirate, played by Maria Pitillo, is a gorgeous and successful attorney. Her two roommates, played by David Newsom and Bradley White, are skirt-chasers whose dates wind up being stand-ins for their true love, Casey. This sounds suspiciously like a cleaned up version of “Men Behaving Badly.”
“For Your Love” (Debut not set): A neighborhood comedy set in Chicago, this series revolves around three couples whose relationships are at different points. Among the stars in the ensemble cast is Dedee Pfeiffer, sister to Michelle, and a former co-star on the CBS comedy “Cybill.”
“Prey” (8 p.m. Jan. 15): The continued success of “The X-Files” is undoubtedly the wellspring for this deep conspiracy drama. Debra Messing (“Ned & Stacy”) stars as a scientist who discovers through genetic testing that evolution has taken a new turn, creating a species of calculating and homicidal humans devoted to wiping the rest of us off the planet.
“Something So Right” (Debut not set): A comedy about two people who have been to the altar more than once and are now giving marriage another try. It’s complicated by two careers and three children from the previous unions. This sitcom is the brainchild of the producers of “Coach.”
“Push” (Debut not set): A drama from the producer of Fox’s “Party of Five,” “Push” is the story of college athletes with Olympic potential and the coach who tries to get them there.
“These Are the Days” (Debut not set): This half-hour sitcom is about a man who dreams of converting an upstairs apartment in his Queens, N.Y., home into a haven for himself and his buddies. That dream is dashed when his sister-in-law and her son move in. This series is being put together under the title “Raise the Roof.”
“Kids Say the Darndest Things” (debuts 8 p.m. Friday): Bill Cosby holds down his second series for CBS, a remake of the Art Linkletter feature popular in the 1960s. Each week Cosby will play straight man and charmer to a different group of kids, ages 4-8, as they talk about a variety of topics. There will also be clips from Linkletter’s old show, “House Party.”
“Style & Substance” (9:30 p.m. Mondays, debuted this week): Jean Smart (“Designing Women”) plays a Martha Stewart-type character who can do everything but run her own personal life.
“The Magnificent Seven” (8 p.m. Saturdays, debuted last week): Based on the classic American film of the same name, which in turn was based on a Japanese epic, “The Seven Samurai,” this series chronicles seven gunmen who band together to bring justice to the West.
“Ask Harriet” (Preview debuted Sunday, debut in regular time slot is 8:30 p.m. Thursday): “Tootsie” comes to TV in this half-hour sitcom. Jack Cody (Anthony Tyler Quinn) is a macho jerk of a newspaper columnist who can’t get a job because of all the career bridges he’s dynamited. Then, dressed as a woman, he lands a job writing an advice-to-the-lovelorn column.
“New York Undercover” (9 p.m. Thursday, returns this week): This perennial Fox show reappears after a hiatus during which some new plot twists and characters were added. Detectives J.C. Williams (Malik Yoba) and Nina Moreno (Lauren Velez) now work for a police unit that’s got double secret status. Among their new colleagues is Nell Delaney, played by a very grown-up Marisa Ryan from “Major Dad.”
“Beyond Belief: Fact or Fiction” (8 p.m. Jan. 23): This reality-based show returns after a long layoff. It challenges viewers to choose which unbelievable stories are in fact true, and which are creations of the show’s writers.
“Jeff & Jeff” (Debut not set): Jon Cryer, Duane Martin and Vivica A. Fox star in this sitcom in which all three work in an atmosphere charged with sexual tension.
“Damon Wayans Project” (Debut not set): This as-yet-untitled sitcom throws Wayans, whose “413 Hope St.” drama was recently canceled by Fox, back together with David Alan Grier from his “In Living Color” days. Wayans plays a cop who uses a lot of offbeat methods to fight crime in Chicago.