These Sitcoms Earning Ratings but Not Respect : Television: Critics give most of the credit for the success of 'Single Guy' and 'Caroline in the City' to their time slots, but an NBC executive insists that 'the shows are absolutely runaway, breakaway hits.'

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Rodney Dangerfield can relate.

So far this season, rookie NBC sitcoms "The Single Guy" and "Caroline in the City" rank as the fourth and fifth most popular series on television.

Clearly, the audience is watching.

But, like Dangerfield, the two shows don't get no respect from most critics and industry insiders. The unanimous refrain: The season has produced no true breakaway hits; these newcomers got lackluster reviews and have garnered great ratings only because of their time slots.

"Single Guy," with Jonathan Silverman as the bachelor everybody sets up, and "Caroline," starring Lea Thompson as a quirky, single cartoonist, are sandwiched on Thursday nights between the critical and popular hits "Friends," "Seinfeld" and "ER"--the three highest-rated series of the season. That has left the critics underwhelmed.

"At this point," Daily Variety's Brian Lowry wrote recently, "roughly two-thirds of the 42 new series that premiered in the fall have had their initial 13-episode order extended, despite the absence of a single bona fide hit."

"There is not a single solid hit among this fall's new shows," wrote TV Guide's Jeff Jarvis.

"The only new shows you could call hits, 'Caroline in the City' and 'The Single Guy,' just happen to be on NBC's powerhouse Thursday night," wrote Newsweek's Rick Marin. "You could put Shari Lewis and Lambchop on after 'Seinfeld' and they'd get huge numbers."

Warren Littlefield, president of NBC Entertainment, doesn't deny that the freshman sitcoms' enviable positioning has helped.

"If you put those shows out there on another night," he said recently, "would they have those same numbers? No, they wouldn't. . . ."

But, he added in so many polite words, the media can take a long, vigorous walk.

"While we're always interested in what the critics have to say, really, there's no comparison when it comes to listening to the audience versus listening to the critics. We'll pick the audience every time."

And the vote there, he insisted, is unambiguous: "The shows are absolutely runaway, breakaway hits."

Industry analysts have said that neither program is performing as well as NBC may have hoped because their audience drops by several million from the program that precedes them.

Littlefield, however, said he is more than satisfied with the shows' performance. He acknowledged that viewership dips a bit from the lead-in but said it's by a smaller margin than last season.

Around this time last year, he said, "Friends' " share of audience at 8:30 p.m. was three points lower than what "Mad About You" was getting at 8. "Single Guy" only drops two. And at 9:30, "Madman of the People" was seven points lower than "Seinfeld" at 9. "Caroline" drops five points.

"Madman of the People" wound up being canceled. So did another of NBC's rookies this season, "The Pursuit of Happiness," which failed to hold on to the "Frasier" audience on Tuesdays.

"So when I see out there in the press, 'Well, anything could do well in that time period,' that's just not true," Littlefield said.

NBC executives are hoping the two new sitcoms enjoy "Frasier's" fate. They launched the Kelsey Grammer vehicle after "Seinfeld" on Thursdays in 1993, it became a hit, then was moved to Tuesday night to build network strength there.

"We introduce new shows [on Thursdays] and we allow them to become favorites with the audience," Littlefield said, then move them to other nights.

One big difference between "Frasier" and this season's Thursday night newcomers, however, is that "Frasier" premiered to excellent reviews. But not every show is hot from the get-go, Littlefield argued, and all "creative entities" should be allowed time to mature.

"The shows are growing and finding their strengths and moving away from their weaknesses," he said, just as did "Seinfeld" and "Friends," which also were not enthusiastically praised at the start.

"Caroline in the City" executive producer Fred Barron agrees. "We were trying to figure out who these characters were for the first three or four episodes," Barron said. "By the time we did 'The Gay Art Show' [episode], we had locked in and we started sailing. The characters became much easier to write. That's normal."

"You get an attitude [from the critics] of, 'You like it so much, network? Prove it to us,' " he said. "It's like we came in rich and beautiful, we came in the Golden Child, and there's a natural resentment against us."

The media are further biased against the sitcoms because journalists have been blindly following a trend to produce stories knocking shows that copy "Friends," Barron maintained.

"You go where the story is," he said, "and the story this year is that everything is a clone. The story this year is that, 'Oh my god, look at all these [shows with] single people.'

"I don't see why that's news. Did anybody think we were going to come out of the gate and do better than 'Seinfeld' and 'ER'?"

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