"Murder One," the newlegal series devoting an entire season to one murder case, is undergoing a trial by fire. The drama from acclaimed producer Steven Bochco ("Hill Street Blues," "L.A. Law," "NYPD Blue") was declared guilty of being the best new series of the season by critics nationwide when it debuted last month on ABC. "The Best New Show of the Year!" trumpeted TV Guide in a cover story. The Chicago Sun-Times wrote that "Murder One" is "the most exciting and innovative new drama since 'ER.' "
But that nearly unprecedented praise has yet to translate into a large viewing audience for the series. "Murder One" did well in its initial outing Sept. 19 in the "NYPD Blue" 10 p.m. Tuesday time slot, but viewership declined in its next two Tuesday airings.
And when "Murder One" moved into its regular 10 p.m. Thursday slot in a much anticipated showdown with NBC's "ER" Oct. 5, the jury--namely the viewing public--hung the freshman drama out to dry. Not only did "Murder One" get trounced, but it also failed to make a dent in the medical drama's ratings, as ABC had hoped.
Then it did even worse this week.
In their first head-to-head matchup, "Murder One" scored an 8.3 rating and a 14 share of the available viewing audience, while "ER" registered a 24.7 rating and a 40 share. Figures released Friday by Nielsen Media Research showed that in their second encounter Thursday, "Murder One" finished last in its time period with a 6.7 rating and 11 share, behind a 24.2/40 for "ER" and an 8/13 for CBS' "48 Hours." (Each rating point represents 959,000 households.)
Bochco and ABC have long maintained that they did not expect "Murder One" to beat "ER," saying they would be satisfied with slowing down the "ER" steamroller and staying competitive. But the clobbering of "Murder One" in the past two weeks has industry insiders buzzing about the legal drama's future.
"The show has no chance whatsoever at 10 p.m. Thursdays," said Paul Schulman, president of Paul Schulman Co., a New York-based media buying agency. "A 14 share against a 40 share may be the high that 'Murder One' will get. I don't think it will ever come back."
Echoed Jack McQueen, executive producer of TN Entertainment, which produces television specials for advertisers: "It's really puzzling why ABC should use a show that is this well-produced as cannon fodder against the top-rated show on television."
Despite the disappointing ratings, ABC for now is standing its ground in keeping "Murder One" in its place.
"I want to make it clear that ABC is firmly committed to a full season of 'Murder One,' and that we hope it will be on for many years to come," Alan Sternfeld, senior vice president of programming, planning and scheduling for ABC, declared in an interview Friday.
"We're aware that our scheduling of it has been aggressive, and that there is no sign of vulnerability or downward trend in NBC's Thursday night schedule," he continued. "We had hoped there was room for two shows to attract a viable audience in that time period, just as 'L.A. Law' and 'Knots Landing' coexisted for many years."
As for moving "Murder One" away from "ER" to a different spot on the schedule, Sternfeld said, "Our intention is to leave it where it is and stick to our original plan. We don't want to be guilty of a knee-jerk reaction. It's still close to the beginning of a season where viewers are overwhelmed by all the new shows and many other factors. Yes, the ratings we see on Friday mornings are painful, but it's only been two weeks. We need to know a little more before we implement Plan B."
Part of the strategy to build the audience for "Murder One" will be to give it a better lead-in. ABC this week canceled "Charlie Grace" and "The Monroes," two rookie dramas that aired from 8 p.m. to 10 p.m. and were drawing mediocre audiences leading into "Murder One."
Next Thursday, ABC will broadcast Game 5 of the World Series, if a fifth game is needed. It will fill the rest of the vacant 8 p.m. to 10 p.m. "Murder One" lead-ins in November with movies and specials.
Bochco, the executive producer and co-creator of "Murder One," said that he is disappointed but not surprised at how the drama has done, especially against "ER."
"I always said we would get our [butts] kicked, and we did, and we will as long as we're there," Bochco said. " 'ER' is a genuine big hit, and nothing you put in there will dent its popularity. But we're making a show we're proud of. It's a fine show with a very loyal following. I don't think we're doing anything wrong, and I can't imagine anything we can do that will make a difference."
He said a large part of the blame has to go to the lack of a significant lead-in: "If we were in a good time slot somewhere else and not getting a response, then I would wonder. But Thursday is a juggernaut for NBC, and if there is only a 9-share lead-in, it doesn't matter what comes on after it."
Analysts offered a variety of explanations for the "Murder One" shortfall besides the middling lead-in: Some episodes have failed to live up to the promise of the pilot, viewers are weary or disgruntled with the legal system due to the verdicts in the O.J. Simpson double murder trial, the complications of "Murder One's" plot makes it a hard show to pick up if a viewer misses the first 10 or 15 minutes, while new catastrophes and conflicts are constantly erupting during an episode of "ER."
Bochco pointed out that, ironically, the second and third episodes of "Murder One" aired on the same nights as, respectively, the closing arguments and the verdict in the Simpson case, cutting into the drama's potential audience. The third episode was abruptly bumped to an earlier time slot due to coverage of the verdict, catching many viewers unaware.
"I don't know that it's accurate that 'Murder One' fell off from its premiere," Bochco said. "We were victim to an extremely atypical series of events."
He said he remains hopeful that "Murder One" will eventually attract a large audience.
But Schulman said the only way to save "Murder One" is to "get it off the air immediately. They should hold it until January, when ["Monday Night Football"] is over, then run it at 9 p.m. or 10 p.m. straight through till the end of the season. Everyone else will be in repeats, and they'll have originals."
McQueen said that if he were running ABC, "I would put a news show in that Thursday slot and put 'Murder One' in a good time period where it would be sampled. People are hooked on 'ER,' and the audience continues to grow. So there needs to be alternative viewing in that spot, not an action drama. [The news show] won't get a huge rating, but it would not be that expensive."