All right, so maybe this disrupted TV season started with a whimper rather than a bang, thanks to the writers’ strike. But even after enduring eons of repeats, viewers are making it known loud and clear that they don’t like most of the new programming offered by the three major networks.
Judging from the ratings so far, only three new prime-time shows can be called bona-fide hits: ABC’s comedy “Roseanne” and two NBC sitcoms, “Empty Nest” and “Dear John.” A few others are showing promise but most are near the bottom of the Nielsen chart.
Ratings released Tuesday, for example, showed NBC’s “Tattinger’s” at No. 61 and CBS’ “Annie McGuire” at 66. In its premiere, ABC’s “Knightwatch” finished 73rd, losing in its time period even to the CBS news program “48 Hours.”
“Granted this season is so atypical. But it’s really been terrible,” Alan Wurtzel, ABC’s senior vice president for marketing and research, said Tuesday.
“I think with the staggered season because of the strike, viewers were and still are confused. They don’t know when the new shows are on or when series are starting. It’s a very frustrating period. And we’re running out of time for things to settle down.”
Even the shows that so far have fared well are questionable, network executives said, noting that much of the networks’ prime-time schedule still hasn’t debuted. By some accounts, ABC has yet to premiere about 33% of its regular programming, CBS about 25% and NBC about 14%.
For instance, will “Roseanne,” which was preempted by election coverage last week but had finished No. 2 in the ratings the previous week, continue to fare as well once NBC gets “Matlock” going again and CBS debuts its new series aimed at younger audiences, “TV 101"?
“I’m not going to bad-mouth a program that’s done well, but it hasn’t faced its real competition,” said Gerald Jaffe, vice president for research at NBC.
Among the possible success stories thus far, NBC’s “Unsolved Mysteries” showed improvement and jumped to No. 18 in the ratings released Tuesday, up from 32nd place the previous week. But even Jaffe acknowledged that, compared to the competitive mysteries presented recently in syndication--"The Secret Identity of Jack the Ripper” and “Who Murdered JFK"--"our ‘Son of Sam’ (episode of ‘Unsolved Mysteries’) was not as good an audience grabber.”
Also improving last week was NBC’s “Baby Boom,” which ranked 27th, though it still couldn’t win its time slot opposite the ABC movie “Ladykillers.”
“But wait till ‘Baby Boom’ faces (ABC’s) ‘Hooperman,’ ” Jaffe warned.
Currently, CBS is the only network not to have a single new hit this fall. In fact, last week most of its new programming was in the cellar, including “Dirty Dancing” at No. 68, “The Van Dyke Show” at 69 and “Raising Miranda” at 75.
What was even worse than their ranking was their single-digit ratings.
The fact is that before network viewship began to slump a decade ago, even the lowest-rated shows garnered numbers in the teens.
“A new program used to get an audience by default. They (viewers) didn’t have as many alternatives. Now a new show can be rejected outright,” Wurtzel complained. “So the cost of failure for a program is far more severe today.”
Arnold Becker, vice president of research at CBS, agreed that all the networks, but especially his, are going through a “dry spell” for hits this season. Among the new shows, he said, “the only ones that are succeeding are in a large measure succeeding because of the time periods they’re in.”
NBC’s “Empty Nest” follows the sure-fire “Golden Girls,” “Dear John” follows “Cheers” in the network’s top-rated Thursday lineup and ABC’s “Roseanne” chases the popular “Who’s the Boss?”
That in itself may be the reason CBS is so hard up for a hit, Becker said. “CBS is not in a situation to put a program in a cushy time period because our old returning shows are not that high rated any longer. So we have a sort of double whammy.”
Already, several network researchers are prepared to call the season’s ratings race virtually over, with CBS seeming to own the cellar and NBC leading comfortably in first place.
ABC executives, meanwhile, were feeling mixed emotions over the 21.8 rating for Sunday’s premiere of TV’s longest and most expensive miniseries, “War and Remembrance,” which ranked fourth last week.
While attracting only 31% of the available audience, compared to the 53% won by “Winds of War” in 1983, the figures nevertheless represented a respectable showing for the start of the 30-hour sequel. Most importantly, from ABC’s standpoint, is the fact that they were well above the 20.2 average that the network reportedly guaranteed advertisers for the miniseries.
“When you look at the numbers, you’ve got to see them as half-full and half-empty,” Wurtzel noted. “The problem is (that) everybody’s looking at ‘War and Remembrance’ from the point of view of ‘Winds of War’ without evaluating it in contemporary terms. The networks’ audience is smaller, so getting 50 million viewers on Sunday evening isn’t chopped liver.”
CBS’ Becker agreed: “We have not yet gotten used to the idea that good ratings are lower nowadays than they used to be. A 31 share is clearly lower than expectations, but I don’t know if those expectations were unreasonable.”