Network executives and TV producers traditionally complain that their low-rated series would have been big hits if only viewers would have "sampled" them. Even the worst stinkers have been eulogized by their makers as gems that went unnoticed for reasons unrelated to the show itself.
But that lament won't hold up this year. Thanks to the onslaught of unusual marketing ploys and the time-period "stunting" that saw many new shows airing for one night behind established hits, the sampling rate for the 1989-90 season's freshman programs has been unusually high.
"The most interesting facet of the new season is how effectively the four networks have used various promotional tools," says John Pike, president of Paramount's network television division. "All four have done a terrific job of at least getting people to sample the product."
That's the good news for the TV industry. The bad news is that a lot of viewers who watched the shows once don't want to see them again.
One month into the new season, there are no big success stories--only debate over what constitutes success. Is ABC's "Chicken Soup" a success? The Jackie Mason sitcom has consistently placed among the top dozen shows on TV, yet it's considered a loser by many industry observers because it fails to hold a sizable portion of the viewers who watch the top-rated "Roseanne," which precedes it. Is CBS' "Rescue 911" a success? It runs a perennial last in its tough Tuesday time period, yet draws better ratings there than CBS has seen in ages.
In the largest sense, the season is all but over. NBC will finish first, ABC second and CBS third. That's the conventional wisdom and few insiders, if any, foresee a different outcome. But in the weekly hand-to-hand combat of network programming, there are important battles being waged all across the schedule.
No one expects to have a clear picture of how the new season is shaping up until after the World Series--and the odd scheduling the games cause--is over. NBC was still introducing new shows as recently as nine days ago and will not bring back "L.A. Law" until Nov. 2. A number of series have had only an outing or two against their regular competition, making it difficult to tell how they'll handle the long haul.
That is, if they get to have a long haul. It's already clear that some shows are in serious trouble.
"The gimmick shows aren't working," says one studio executive who asked to remain anonymous. " 'People Next Door' is an unqualified disaster. '(The Famous) Teddy Z' and the Mel Brooks show ('The Nutt House') aren't working. 'Baywatch' is a gimmick. 'Quantum Leap,' no matter what they do, isn't going to work. But at least NBC gave it a chance." The time-travel series was a mid-season replacement show last spring.
Among other struggling shows are NBC's "Sister Kate," CBS' "Snoops" and "Peaceable Kingdom." ABC's weekend comedies--the veteran "Mr. Belvedere" and newcomer "Living Dolls" on Saturday, and Sunday's "Free Spirit" and "Homeroom"--are hurting for attention. But ABC senior vice president Alan Wurtzel says he's pleased because the shows are getting better ratings than previous ABC series in their time slots.
The rookie news shows, "PrimeTime Live" on ABC and "Saturday Night With Connie Chung" on CBS, are faring poorly, but are unlikely to be axed because they are cheap to produce and considered prestigious.
Also added to the network blend this season is Fox Broadcasting's new Monday-night lineup of "21 Jump Street" and "Alien Nation." While both shows are low-rated by regular network standards, Fox executives say they are optimistic. "We're really pleased," says Peter Chernin, president of Fox Entertainment. "Frankly, it's better than we expected to do." Outside assessments are mixed. " 'Alien Nation' is doing well," says Betsy Frank, senior vice president at Saatchi and Saatchi advertising, who points to growing numbers of young men watching the show. But adman Paul Schulman, president of Paul Schulman and Co., thinks the show's title should be one word--Alienation.
After only one outing with its complete, all-new Friday lineup, NBC already appears to have problems. In their first regular broadcasts, "Hardball" and "Mancuso FBI" both ran last on the night that is traditionally NBC's worst. CBS' "Dallas," which had been getting dismal ratings in three previous airings, beat "Hardball" handily and came a hair from winning its time period. That brought some relief to CBS, which already has committed to running the soap again next year.
David Salzman, president of Lorimar, which produces "Dallas," blamed the show's initially weak performance on the low ratings of "Snoops," which precedes it, and inadequate promotion from CBS. "Their attitude is, 'Don't worry about "Dallas," you can't kill it with a stick,' " he complained. He said Lorimar itself will give the show stronger promotion in the future.
As many of the new shows sink to the lower depths of the ratings, network executives must decide whether to pull the plug and, if so, when. There are no set rules, and TV programmers often point to the great number of hit series--including "The Cosby Show"--that needed a little time to rev up to full strength.
"It's not just a numbers game," says Warren Littlefield, NBC's executive vice president of prime-time programs. "You have to separate yourself from pure numbers." When making decisions about low-rated shows, he says, network executives must ask themselves, 'Do you still believe in the premise? Do you still believe in the execution?' If you've given up on one of these," it's time to think about axing the show.
"Pulling the trigger quickly can be a mistake," says Paramount's Pike. "The networks have almost a responsibility" to nurture marginal performers. But if a show is clearly going nowhere, he says, "you just flush it. You flush it quickly."
Although the pungent smell of looming cancellation hangs heavy over the new season, there are some bright spots for the networks.
NBC, which has the fewest new shows on the air, does not have any fast-break winners in the bunch. But it has few new shows because it doesn't need many. The network has been pushing the message that its returning shows have not lost their strength, aside from a couple of time periods where the competition has improved. "Cosby" is still a powerhouse, though relegated to No. 2 behind ABC's "Roseanne" each week.
ABC is crowing about having increased the number of young, urban viewers--the most desirable audience for advertisers--who are watching the network's shows. And its "Doogie Howser, M.D." appears to be a bona fide hit, especially after flip-flopping its Wednesday time slot with "Anything but Love." "Doogie" crushed NBC's aging "Night Court" in their first toe-to-toe match-up. Also doing well is ABC's "Family Matters," sandwiched comfortably between the returning hits "Full House" and "Perfect Strangers" and airing against weak competition on Fridays. The network's "Life Goes On" is getting critical praise, even if it's not attracting many viewers in its tough Sunday slot opposite "60 Minutes."
For CBS, "Island Son" with Richard Chamberlain has gotten off to a strong start. So has "Major Dad," although the military sitcom has been slipping slightly each week--from 26% of the audience on Sept. 18 to 25% on Sept. 25, 24% on Oct. 2 and 22% on Oct. 9, when it lost to NBC's "Alf" for the first time. "Alf" won again last Monday as "Major Dad's" share dipped to 21%.
"It looked like the Alfer was cut over the eye in the early rounds," says NBC's Littlefield. "But it's not over."
The same can be said for CBS' all-comedy gamble on Mondays, which "Major Dad" leads off at 8 p.m. CBS got off to a night-winning start, but has slowed down substantially, with tough competition from movies on NBC and football on ABC.
The network's jazzy marketing campaign has been given much of the credit for enticing viewers to peek in on CBS at least once.
The network underwent a massive cross-promotional campaign with K mart, stuffed "New Season" booklets into Maxell videotapes and ran in-flight advertisements for its Monday-night lineup on TWA and American Airlines. " 'Major Dad' was our No. 1 priority," says George Schweitzer, senior vice president of communications for CBS.
Sampling for CBS shows was up 30% over last year, according to the network's figures. While Schweitzer believes the unusual marketing campaign is responsible to a great degree, he is unsure exactly how large a role it played. Both CBS and NBC, which had a similar game and prizes tie-in with Sears, are now trying to measure the results.
While CBS executives are pleased, NBC appears dubious about its campaign. "I'm reserved and waiting for the research," says John Miller, a senior vice president at NBC. He believes Sears may have gained more from the tie-in than NBC.
The networks had more than the fate of individual shows in mind when they unleashed their massive fall publicity campaigns this year. They were also out to whip up enthusiasm about network television in general, which has been losing viewers to independent stations, cable TV, home videos and other entertainment outlets for the past 10 years.
During this year's premiere week, the networks combined to attract 72% of the total TV audience--a figure, they boasted, that was up eight percentage points from the same time the previous year.
That, of course, was somewhat misleading, because last year's new season was marred by a Writers Guild strike that delayed the premiere of most series until late October. A better comparison would be 1987. So far this season, the three networks together have attracted 71% of the prime-time audience; at the same point two years ago they had 72%.
Saatchi and Saatchi's Frank thinks there was a genuine excitement about the new season this fall. "The question is," she wonders, "will the people who tuned in in October still be there in November and December?"
Lorimar's Salzman knows what could bring boom times back to the networks. He's seen it before. "What the networks need is an economic recession," he says. "It's fabulous in terms of what it does for television viewing."
"But let's hope it doesn't happen."
HOW THE TOP 20 NEW SHOWS ARE FARING
RANK Show Network Rating 11. "Chicken Soup" ABC 19.0 20. "Doogie Howser, M.D." ABC 15.7 23. "Major Dad" CBS 15.3 33. "The Famous Teddy Z" CBS 14.2 41. "The Nutt House" NBC 13.6 46. " Family Matters" ABC 13.8 43. "Island Son" CBS 12.9 48. "The People Next Door" CBS 12.7 49. "Rescue 911" CBS 12.7 54. "Young Riders" ABC 11.4 57. "Baywatch NBC 11.1 58. "Top of the Hill" CBS 10.7 59. "Mancuso FBI" NBC 10.6 61. "Wolf" CBS 10.4 62. "Free Spirt" ABC 10.1 63. "PrimeTime Live" ABC 10.0 63. "Hardball" NBC 10.0 65. "Life Goes On" ABC 9.9 67. "Peaceable Kingdom" CBS 9.7 71. "Snoops" CBS 9.2 71. "Sister Kate" NBC 9.2
For comparison, the top five shows and their ratings: 1) "Roseanne," 26.4; 2) "The Cosby Show," 24.6; 3) "Cheers," 23.6; 4) "A Different World," 22.6; 5) "Wonder Years," 21.9
Source: A.C. Nielsen Co. Each rating point represents 921,000 homes.