Last season's race among the crop of new network series came up with a couple of clear winners right out of the gate: NBC's "Friends" and "ER."
But this season's new entries are moving at a much slower clip, with no obvious winners so far and more slow runners than industry insiders had expected.
With the release Tuesday of ratings for the third week of the official prime-time season, analysts said nearly all of the 42 new network series have failed to make much of a mark, with the few shows that are doing well having the benefit of a potent lead-in from established hits. And even those are not holding on to the previous show's audience.
Only a few of the sitcoms that have fashioned themselves after "Friends" or "Seinfeld" are generating significant audiences, and many new dramas, including CBS' "Central Park West" and ABC's "The Monroes," are being left in the dust.
"It's still a little early, but there are not any programs that seem to be hitting a breakthrough stride like when 'ER' and 'Friends' broke through the clutter," said Bill Croasdale, president of national broadcasting for Western International Media, which buys commercial time for advertisers.
"There seems to be mass confusion among the viewership," he added. "There are 42 new shows and 19 returning shows moving to new time periods. Those factors, plus the fact that most of those new shows are spinoffs from 'Friends.' There is a sameness to the point that viewers are turned off by much of the product."
Joel Segal, executive vice president of national broadcasting for McCann-Erickson, an advertising firm, agreed: "This has been a very weak season. With the O.J. Simpson trial and heavy cable competition, there are few success stories at the networks."
The new shows that are performing the best so far are NBC's comedies "The Single Guy" and "Caroline in the City" and ABC's "Hudson Street," a police comedy starring Tony Danza. All are scheduled behind established hits.
"Murder One," the legal drama from noted producer Steven Bochco, is generating a lot of positive press and a large core of viewers but is not yet the breakthrough hit that many pundits had predicted. It also has yet to air in its regular time slot, opposite "ER" on Thursdays.
Attracting smaller but adequate audiences--at least for now, analysts say--are "The Naked Truth," "The Drew Carey Show," "The Jeff Foxworthy Show" and "Maybe This Time" from ABC and "Can't Hurry Love" and "John Grisham's The Client" from CBS.
Falling far behind and facing possible extinction if the numbers don't pick up are CBS' "Courthouse," "New York News," "Central Park West," "If Not for You" and "The Bonnie Hunt Show," ABC's "Charlie Grace" and "The Monroes" and Fox's "The Preston Episodes," "Partners" and "Ned and Stacey."
Ratings for NBC's "The Single Guy" and "Caroline in the City" have been strong; each is winning its time slot on Thursday night and finished among the week's top five programs last week. But expectations for them were higher than for other shows because of their positioning: "The Single Guy" is sandwiched between "Friends" and "Seinfeld," and "Caroline in the City" falls between "Seinfeld" and "ER."
By those standards, they are not performing as well as NBC may have hoped, analysts said. Some of the audience from "Friends" and "Seinfeld" tune out the new shows.
"Both of them drop from their lead-in," said Croasdale. " 'Caroline' is losing four to five share points from 'Seinfeld,' and then 'ER' jumps up five or six share points from 'Caroline.' NBC can't be happy with that, and if it starts losing six or seven share points, they might have to start looking for a replacement."
The same holds true for "Hudson Street," which airs at 8:30 p.m. Tuesdays on ABC between "Roseanne" and "Home Improvement."
"There's a slight dip, but it's holding on pretty well to its 'Roseanne' lead-in," Segal said.
The biggest disappointment of the season is "Central Park West," which premiered after a heavy summer of promotion that CBS hoped would establish it as a steamy prime-time soap that audiences would flock to a la "Melrose Place."
Croasdale and others said counter-programming by Fox of special episodes of "Beverly Hills, 90210" and "Melrose Place" has hurt "Central Park West," but they also said the show is too similar to the defunct "Models Inc.," another series from "Central Park West" creator Darren Star.
"It just doesn't have the snap and pizazz of 'Melrose,' " Croasdale said. "Of course, 'Melrose' was headed for extinction too before [producer] Aaron Spelling brought on Heather Locklear. But 'Central Park West' may not be salvageable."
Analysts seemed somewhat split on the performance and future of "Murder One." The almost universal praise for the drama, which will follow one murder case through the entire season, has not translated into as large an audience as ABC must have hoped. The ratings have dropped each week.
"Yes, it's the best new drama of the season, but it's not 'NYPD Blue,' " said Paul Schulman, president of Paul Schulman Co., a media buying firm.
Betsy Frank of Zenith TV, the media buying arm for Saatchi and Saatchi Advertising, added, "If it had done well out of the box, it would have been a wonderful surprise. I'm sure they're not happy it didn't do better."
The third installment of the series was hurt last Tuesday when it was abruptly bumped to an earlier time period because of coverage of the verdict in the O.J. Simpson double murder trial. That episode will air again Thursday at 9 p.m., paired with a new episode in the program's permanent 10 p.m. Thursday time period against "ER."
Some predict that "Murder One" will be crushed by "ER," especially with the lackluster lead-ins of "Charlie Grace" and "The Monroes," two of the weakest new series. But others say "Murder One" will bite off enough of the "ER" audience to make it worthwhile counter-programming by ABC.