ABC Puts Its Shows to Prime- Time Test

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Seeking to breathe life into its struggling prime-time lineup, ABC will make a number of scheduling moves designed to generate sampling of new mid-season series, which include a comedy starring Arsenio Hall and a drama from "Picket Fences" creator David E. Kelley.

During an interview session with TV critics Thursday, network executives also officially confirmed that this will be the final season of "Roseanne"--with the 9-year-old sitcom's finale to air in May--and that a two-hour revival of "The Wonderful World of Disney" will play at 7 p.m. Sundays, beginning in September.

To make room for the untitled Hall romantic comedy (co-starring "Independence Day's" Vivica Fox as his newlywed wife) and for Kelley's legal series "The Practice," ABC will bench "Ellen" and "NYPD Blue" from late February until May.

Officials stressed that both established shows will then return in their current time periods.

Networks tend to run more repeats in March and April, between the February and May ratings sweeps, so testing the new series on Tuesdays and Wednesdays offers a chance to showcase them in time periods where ABC already has an audience base.

Politics affect the "Ellen" situation, with reports that the star isn't happy about taking a seat for two months. ABC insiders say they can't move the comedy to an earlier time period if the character played by Ellen DeGeneres does indeed come out as a lesbian.

ABC Entertainment President Jamie Tarses said the network has yet to determine whether that plot development in "Ellen" will happen, awaiting input from producers on where the series would go from there. In general, Tarses said, ABC wants to "forge our identity as a network that takes chances."

In replacing "NYPD Blue," albeit temporarily, Kelley takes a time period occupied by a show from his mentor, producer Steven Bochco, for whom the onetime attorney worked as a writer and producer on "L.A. Law."

ABC's entertainment division had lobbied top management to air "The Practice" at 10 p.m. Wednesdays but ran into a road block thrown up by the news division, which is seeking to negotiate a new contract with "PrimeTime Live" anchor Diane Sawyer and didn't want to risk upsetting her by moving the newsmagazine to a less secure slot. Entertainment officials are said to be hoping that solid Tuesday ratings will make their case, as it were, to give "The Practice"--starring Dylan McDermott as a Boston lawyer--a better time slot.

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In other scheduling moves, ABC will apparently try to piggyback on the success of NBC's "ER" by slotting a reality-based show about medical emergencies, "Vital Signs," at 9 p.m. Thursdays in the hour prior to NBC's medical smash. That show premieres Feb. 27, with the network to air action movies Thursday nights through February.

Bochco's other drama, "Murder One," which airs in that spot now, leaves ABC's schedule after Jan. 23, with the show's final six episodes to be presented over three nights in mid-April. In that story line, the attorney played by Anthony LaPaglia will defend a vigilante serial killer.

Among the network's other announcements, ABC will again try to introduce a new comedy within its top-rated show, "Home Improvement," this one about a widowed minister raising three kids. The network used that tactic before on the short-lived sitcom "Buddies."

The press conference also marked a literal torch-passing from ABC Entertainment Chairman Ted Harbert--a 20-year network veteran who had headed that division since 1993 before resigning Tuesday--to the 32-year-old Tarses, who joined ABC in June.

Harbert said the torch couldn't be lit because of warnings from fire marshals, so the executive--frequently the object of ridicule from one of ABC's biggest stars over the years--joked, "You can just use this to hit Roseanne."

"Wonderful World of Disney" will be introduced each week by Michael Eisner, chairman of ABC's parent company, just as Walt Disney did with the original show, which aired both on ABC and NBC. The franchise will feature a mix of original and theatrical movies, including some Disney classics. The studio allowed "The Lion King" to play in the time slot during November.

Airing the Disney show Sunday means ABC's "Lois & Clark," which has seen its ratings plummet this year, and "America's Funniest Home Videos" will be looking for new time periods next fall, assuming they return.

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ABC has finished third in three consecutive sweeps--the periods used to determine advertising rates by local affiliates--going back to last February, despite Eisner's pledge then that the first setback wouldn't be repeated.

The network's big event for May will be a six-hour miniseries version of "The Shining," which author Stephen King has promised will be "the scariest thing ever to air on American television." Still, Tarses said the show will get a TV-14 content rating, as opposed to the more restrictive TV-M, signaling only mature audiences.

During a separate appearance before the critics Thursday, Arsenio Hall said that African Americans need to get experience producing television shows, responding to the fact that many are now relegated to series on the low-rated UPN and WB networks.

"You can't get good at something unless you're given the opportunity to do it at a major-league level a lot," he said, adding of the UPN and WB shows, "it's better than nothing, and through it comes knowledge."

Asked about a title for his new show, Hall said, "There have been a couple of people who've been trying to get me to use 'Seinfeld.' "

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