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Gearing Up for Fight Night on Tuesdays : Television: Who’ll win the ‘Frasier’ vs. ‘Home Improvement’ matchup? It won’t be viewers.

TIMES TELEVISION WRITER

The NBC comedy “Frasier,” a spinoff of “Cheers,” came flying out of the chute last season and in no time at all became a member of the ratings elite.

The big surprise, however, was how confident and stylish the show looked for a brand-new entry. The writing was snappy and smart. The cast, headed by “Cheers” veteran Kelsey Grammer, seemed like a closely knit veteran ensemble with several seasons already under its belt.

Paired with “Seinfeld,” “Frasier” gave NBC a potent Thursday one-two punch, with both series almost automatically finishing in the Top 10.

A network dream.

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Well, almost.

NBC had bigger dreams.

Stuck in third place in the ratings, NBC decided that “Frasier” was the lethal weapon it needed to build another strong night and boost its prime-time momentum on the long road back.

Thus, NBC stunned the industry last spring by announcing that its new hit--in which psychiatrist Frasier Crane returned home to Seattle to start a radio-advice show--would switch to Tuesdays and challenge ABC’s entrenched “Roseanne” series head-on this fall.

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Some “Frasier” executives and cast members say they were “shocked,” “horrified” and yet also flattered at the network’s confidence.

But there was more of a shake-up to come.

ABC, probably sensing that “Roseanne” would still win but that the series was aging and vulnerable, last week yanked it from Tuesdays, switched it to Wednesdays and counterprogrammed “Frasier” with its big bazooka, “Home Improvement.” Their first battle will be Sept. 20.

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Will the seemingly invincible “Home Improvement,” last season’s No. 1 show, demolish “Frasier,” as it did “Seinfeld” in the past? Will “Frasier” hold its own?

NBC Entertainment President Warren Littlefield thinks ABC has blinked. He quotes an advertising executive as saying: “The first big battle of the season, ‘Frasier’ vs. ‘Roseanne,’ is over. The result: ‘Frasier, TKO.”

Well, maybe. But “Roseanne” could also wind up No. 1 if “Frasier” and “Home Improvement” cut into each other’s audience. It won’t have any comedy competition at 9 p.m. Wednesdays.

Littlefield dismisses the notion that “Frasier” could get hurt by “Home Improvement,” saying: “It won’t. It’s too popular a show. It’s a rocket ship right now. Nothing can stop it.”

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Counters ABC Entertainment President Ted Harbert: “NBC picked this fight by moving ‘Frasier’ to Tuesday night at 9. Since they picked a fight, we’ll finish it. I felt provoked to take action to protect the long-term interests of ABC on Tuesday and Wednesday nights.

“I think ‘Frasier’ is very well done,” he adds. “But everybody likes ‘Home Improvement'--all age groups and demographics. They don’t get nearly the creative credit that they deserve.”

Meanwhile, back at the “Frasier” offices. . . .

“There’s no sense mincing words,” says Peter Casey, one of the creators of the series. “We were not happy at all being moved out of Thursday nights. We felt we earned that spot and performed incredibly well. We wanted to remain there. It bugged us because (NBC) moved our other show, ‘Wings,’ too"--also to Tuesday nights.

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Adds David Lee, another of the creators of “Frasier” and “Wings”: “We don’t mind being a good soldier, but we don’t want to be the entire army.”

“Roseanne” looked tough enough to the “Frasier” producers. And then came the howitzer called “Home Improvement.” But Lee, Casey and co-executive producer Christopher Lloyd (not the actor) maintain that they will not alter the series to adjust to the ABC competition.

“We did sophisticated stories,” says Lloyd.

“We’re not going to change the show at all,” says Casey.

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They also vow to avoid a lot of stunt casting. But former “Cheers” star Ted Danson is mentioned as a possible guest performer. Bebe Neuwirth, another “Cheers” regular whose character was once married to the stuffy Dr. Crane, was a notable guest-star on the “Frasier” series last season.

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Looking at NBC’s strategy, Lee concedes that the move of “Frasier” is in a sense “flattering. They (NBC) made this bold move"--and “Roseanne” was switched. “So they (ABC) blinked, and that’s kind of neat.”

“If we held ‘Home Improvement’ to a draw” in the ratings, cracks Casey, “I don’t think you could find enough champagne in these halls. I understand what NBC is trying to do. They don’t want forever to win (only) one night a week. In that case, I think NBC made a very good point. I wish they’d made it with ‘Seinfeld’ and ‘Mad About You’ instead of us.”

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James Burrows, who directed 13 of the 24 “Frasier” episodes last season, says that NBC’s move of the series “shocked” him “initially, and then I applauded.” He thinks it’s a smart tactic, “akin to moving ‘The Simpsons’ opposite ‘Cosby.’ I know they (NBC) did a lot of research. The fact that they made ABC screw up two of their nights is significant because TV-watching is a habit.”

In the end, of course, it comes down to networks’ using hit shows as weapons, often to the chagrin of viewers who have to choose between highly popular series--as with “Frasier” and “Home Improvement.”

Although the two shows have distinctly different appeal, VCR use might increase during the competition, and overall network viewership conceivably could rise as people tune in the competing hits.

Matt Williams, co-creator of “Home Improvement,” isn’t happy with the move of his series either. He says “Frasier” has “an appealing cast and it’s well-written and that puts it in the front of the pack. It’s funny and it’s considered smart, and it is.”

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An NBC spokesman said Grammer declined to comment on the latest network moves. But Littlefield says that when he told Grammer that “Frasier” was being switched to Tuesdays, the actor had a positive response, saying he wasn’t surprised and that he was confident the show would do well wherever it played.

If quality was all that counted, “Frasier” would indeed hold its own anywhere. It’s one of the most consistently satisfying series to come along in years.

David Hyde Pierce, who plays Grammer’s slightly askew psychiatrist brother, and Jane Leeves, the home-care worker, think a key reason the show has succeeded is the professional rapport that quickly developed among the cast members.

Of the NBC and ABC program-switching, Pierce says: “Basically, everything that’s happened has been a compliment. The fact that NBC would want to build a night around us is a compliment, and the fact that ABC had concerns about what kind of threat we might pose is a compliment.”

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Sizing up “Frasier’s” appeal, Leeves says: “It has a little bit of everything. There are these two intellectual windbags (Frasier and his brother) for the intellectuals. There’s the working class--me and Martin (the crusty, ex-cop father of the brothers, played by John Mahoney). And there’s a dog (Eddie) for the kids. What more could you ask for?”

Expressing her own confidence in the show’s future, Leeves says: “I think ‘Frasier’ has its own legs. It doesn’t need ‘Seinfeld’ as a lead-in. Obviously, ABC is worried.”

“What stands out to me,” says Mahoney, “is I don’t think we ever had a bad script. Over the summer, I’ve watched the reruns, and I’m constantly struck by the level of the writing.”

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When the show was moved--at first against “Roseanne"--he says, “I was horrified. I thought, ‘Well, you don’t get very long to rest on your laurels.’ ” As for now going up against “Home Improvement,” he says: “I don’t think we have the same audience. We don’t have any children on our show. We’re a more cerebral show.

“I truly think that we’ll have an audience. It’s not going to be as big as the one we had, but I don’t think we’re going to go down the tubes. I think we’re going to have legs of our own. I really don’t think it’s going to be as devastating as when I first heard about it.”


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