To CBS, 'Family' Really Matters

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Steve Urkel's nasal twang will be around at least one more season, but on a new network, with CBS stealing the eighth year of "Family Matters" away from ABC.

CBS outbid the incumbent network for rights to the show, which has led off ABC's popular lineup of Friday comedies--marketed under the moniker "TGIF"--the last six years. "Family Matters" will shift to CBS next fall, but the network is expected to keep the show at 8 o'clock Friday nights, hoping to use it as a cornerstone in establishing its own sitcom franchise.

Announcement of the deal Friday was said to have left ABC stunned and angry, with network sources contending that CBS paid a sum they characterized as "exorbitant."

Insiders put the figure at slightly less than $40 million for 22 new episodes, about 20% more than ABC currently pays. ABC sources, however, indicated that the total package (which includes a commitment for additional programs from the show's producer, Miller-Boyett-Warren Productions) could go substantially higher.

CBS officials declined to discuss financial terms but see the deal as having several potential benefits. In addition to providing the network a show with a proven following, the acquisition appears to deal a blow to ABC, with whom CBS is dueling for second place in this season's prime-time standings, behind front-running NBC.

As is the case with most long-running series, the audience for "Family Matters" has gradually diminished, with the comedy--starring Jaleel White as the nerdy Urkel and Reginald VelJohnson and JoMarie Payton-Noble as the parents of the Winslow family--attracting about 20% fewer viewers than two seasons ago.

Nevertheless, the show still regularly wins its time period, averaging nearly 15 million viewers each week. Moreover, the loss leaves ABC in need of a new lead-off show for Friday next season, even as the network prepares to say goodbye to another long-running comedy, "Roseanne," which occupies a similar position Tuesday nights.

The arrangement also means that Miller-Boyett-Warren--who've been associated with such comedies as "Full House" and "Perfect Strangers"--will be in business with CBS, providing the network, executives hope, with new sitcom hits.

"This is an opportunity for us to rebuild 'TGIF,' or some similar franchise, at CBS," said CBS Entertainment President Leslie Moonves.

Once a dominant force on Fridays, ABC's "TGIF" block has experienced a ratings decline, as has the network's prime-time lineup in general. The Friday shows currently consist of "Family Matters," "Boy Meets World" and the first-year comedies "Sabrina, the Teenage Witch" and "Clueless."

Even with ratings down, those shows remain among television's most popular series with children and teenagers. Given that CBS is the oldest-skewing network, with shows like "Diagnosis Murder" and "60 Minutes," some question whether "Family Matters" represents a good fit with the network's schedule.

According to Moonves, the show's youthful demographic profile dovetails with CBS' efforts to provide family-oriented programs while gradually attracting a younger audience that's more appealing to most national advertisers.

"There's no question that we want to get younger in our own way," he said. "This is a show that fits [the network's promotional slogan] 'Welcome Home.' "

CBS may have been helped in its bid by Moonves' long-term relationship with the producers, having previously headed Warner Bros. Television--the studio behind "Family Matters."

After its fifth season, a TV series passes what's known as its option year, when the production company becomes free to negotiate with other potential buyers.

With its ratings waning and the cost of production rising, studio sources indicated that the coming year on ABC would have probably been the last for "Family Matters." The move to CBS, if successful, could extend the series' life by several seasons.

ABC has one marginal new comedy hit Fridays in "Sabrina," which the network may be inclined to move from 9 o'clock, where it airs at present, to 8 p.m. in the fall. The network confirmed that "Family Matters" was moving to CBS but had no further comment.

"Family Matters" becomes merely the latest series to hop from one network to another--a practice that's become increasingly common in recent years. Currently, for example, CBS airs "JAG" (which premiered last year on NBC), while NBC features two comedies, "The Naked Truth" and "The Jeff Foxworthy Show," which started out a year ago on ABC.

Still, it remains extremely rare for such a long-running series to switch networks. Other veteran shows that still must negotiate renewal terms for next season include NBC's "Seinfeld" and ABC's "Home Improvement," though both are expected to remain at their present network.

"Family Matters" has already been sold into syndication, with reruns playing locally on KTLA-TV Channel 5. Those deals allow the studio to cash in on the series after the episodes play on the networks.

Most of the "Family Matters" cast is expected to return, though at least one member, Payton-Noble, said earlier this season that she expected to leave at season's end.

Miller-Boyett-Warren and Warner Bros. also produce "Step by Step," which is scheduled to return to ABC's lineup in March. It's unclear whether the "Family Matters" deal will have any effect on those plans.

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