Friendly Enemies : Two Comedy Veterans Face Off in Competing Prime-Time Sitcoms

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Jerry Seinfeld and Tim Allen, two of the nation's hottest comedians headlining two of television's most admired sitcoms, will square off at 9 tonight when NBC's "Seinfeld" and ABC's "Home Improvement" premiere with new fall episodes.

It's the biggest network matchup since Fox tapped "The Simpsons" to take on a giant-killer's role against "The Cosby Show" on NBC two years ago.

"Seinfeld" is no giant--it finished No. 42 among all series in the Nielsen ratings last season--but the droll comedy about a stand-up comedian and his friends is the ranking incumbent in the time period and is a fast-rising star in the NBC lineup. It won an Emmy Award last month for best writing in a comedy series and was nominated for eight others, including best comedy series.

Hoping to establish a new night of comedy programming on Wednesdays, ABC has moved in Allen's sitcom about a power-hungry handyman to challenge "Seinfeld's" foothold. In its first season last year, "Home Improvement" enjoyed a plush time slot on Tuesday between "Full House" and "Roseanne" and became the No. 5 show on network television. It also was nominated for an Emmy as best comedy series.

"That's the price of success, really," said Seinfeld, whose show is creatively different from Allen's but shares roughly the same audience demographics. "I'm kind of flattered by it, that they have to send in all these powerhouse shows to hold us down. It's like they're tying these huge weights to our balloon."

"Jerry and I are in the same position, and in the same position as comedians in the comedy world," said Allen, who became friends with Seinfeld while working the comedy-club circuit. "We have empathy for each other, but we're in the middle of this. They make their own decisions at the network.

"The childish point of view is that I would like to have stayed where the show was real secure. As a businessman, I see what ABC is doing, and I applaud their confidence in our show after only one season. This is trial by fire."

ABC Entertainment President Bob Iger offered no apologies for his decision to move "Home Improvement." He wants to build a strong comedy night--"The Wonder Years" and "Doogie Howser, M.D." lead off the evening--and he feels that "Home Improvement" will be a solid lead-in to "Laurie Hill," a new sitcom about a woman juggling family and career that premieres Sept. 30.

(Because "Seinfeld" is starting with an hourlong episode tonight, ABC will follow "Home Improvement" at 9:30 with the season opener of "Coach," which will move to its regular Tuesday-night time slot behind "Roseanne" next week.)

"Look, this is a very competitive business," Iger said. "We're not going to stay out of anybody's way to do them a favor. I happen to be a fan of Seinfeld's. He's a very talented comedian. But I don't have any second thoughts about moving 'Home Improvement,' or any concerns about its ability to succeed in that time period. I'm more than confident, just because it's such a good show."

Iger denied the suggestion that "Home Improvement," after only one season, has not had enough time to build up a loyal following that will chase the show to Wednesday nights.

"Everyone said initially this was a time-period hit," Iger explained. "Until everyone realized, in many cases, it was out-rating its lead-in as the season progressed, which is a pretty big thing to do, because 'Full House' is a powerhouse unto itself. In addition, 'Home Improvement' was recognized from the start as a very solid show creatively. With that in mind, moving it was less a concern."

NBC Entertainment President Warren Littlefield doubts Iger's wisdom, however. Littlefield suggested that the rest of ABC's programming on Wednesday night--which includes the low-rated drama "Civil Wars" at 10--could slam the brakes on all the momentum "Home Improvement" gathered last season.

"I think the difficulty ABC has with 'Home Improvement,' which is a terrific show, is that they're a little bit of an island out there all alone at 9 p.m.," he said. "That has to be a concern."

Allen raised another issue that "Home Improvement" now faces. The sitcom consistently ranked in the Top 5--and frequently finished No. 1--among children ages 2-11. But that was when the start time was 8:30 p.m., a half-hour earlier than its present 9 p.m. slot, when many children are heading off to bed.

"If there is a concern, we all have families and children, and the biggest concern is that it might be on a half-hour too late for some people who enjoyed it before," Allen said. "And I think ABC is concerned with that. But it does allow us more freedom with the censors in topics and subject matter."

Such as?

"It's all about crack babies now. Crack babies, abortion and boogers," Allen joked.

Littlefield shrugged off media speculation that NBC would move "Seinfeld" to avoid the heavy programming traffic on Wednesdays (which includes "Melrose Place" on Fox and, after the World Series next month, "In the Heat of the Night" on CBS). On the contrary, he said, "Seinfeld" needs to stay put in order to become a hit.

In repeats over the past few weeks, "Home Improvement" has been beating "Seinfeld" on Wednesday nights by a modest margin. Although Littlefield expects to lose the half-hour battle between Allen and Seinfeld, he plans on winning the evening based on the lead-in strength of "Unsolved Mysteries" at 8 p.m.

But that doesn't mean Seinfeld can't be successful.

"When Cosby was on Thursday nights at 8 p.m., during the peak of the show, we brought more viewers to the time period," Littlefield said. "The (number of households using television) went way up. And that's what I think will happen here. When we're all in original episodes, when everyone has their schedule in place, I think it's certainly possible for more than one party to succeed in a time period."

Littlefield believes he has found the perfect companion for "Seinfeld" in "Mad About You," a new sitcom starring Paul Reiser and Helen Hunt as New York newlyweds. "Mad About You," which has been drawing positive reviews, premieres next Wednesday after "Seinfeld."

For Seinfeld, the gridlock of popular shows on Wednesdays does not present a problem.

"We've never been part of the mainstream-TV thing anyway," he said. "It's funny to me that networks have to even think about us. It's hilarious to me, and delightful, that other networks make programming decisions based on what we're doing. This show started out like a garage band--we were on four times one year, 13 times another year, then we were up against the Gulf War. So we've really been through it all."

Seinfeld also pointed out that cut-throat competition is nothing new to comedians.

"As a comedian, I started out in these clubs where you go on 15th or 18th," Seinfeld said. "So you think, 'How can I possibly get the audience to like me when they've already seen 15 other people?' You just get used to performing in a crowd. For me, to be up against two or three other shows doesn't mean a thing."

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