For years, ABC owned Tuesday night, just as NBC dominated Thursday.
Now, the network's once-proud lineup--built around the Tim Allen comedy "Home Improvement"--has slipped into disrepair, providing executives cause to chant the show's mantra for "more power," or at least some creative remodeling.
Last week, in the wake of its lowest-rated Tuesday on record during the regular TV season, ABC canceled one new series, "Over the Top," and pulled another, "Hiller and Diller," until December. For the next few weeks ABC will again be compelled to run "Home Improvement" twice--with repeats at 8 p.m. and original episodes at 9 p.m.--as a stopgap measure during the ratings sweeps.
Once a tower of strength, ABC's Tuesday franchise has been whittled down to apartment size through a combination of misguided strategy, poor program development, changes in viewing habits and aggressive counter-scheduling by NBC.
Moreover, the problem ABC faces that night serves as a microcosm of its current ratings woes--specifically, apparent indecision as to what the network, owned by the Walt Disney Co., wants to be.
For most of the last decade, ABC controlled Tuesday behind family-oriented sitcoms, including "Roseanne," "Who's the Boss?" and "Full House." Few of its shows were critical favorites, but the programs connected with parents and children, who watched them together.
Those franchises faded, however, and ABC was slow to develop programs to replace them. In addition, family viewing has diminished, with nearly three-quarters of homes having two or more TV sets and parents and kids often scattering to watch in different rooms.
Sources contend that ABC must accept blame for allowing business and financial considerations to dictate scheduling, as opposed to putting on the best programs.
An example would be "Champs," a 1996 comedy starring Timothy Busfield given the post-"Home Improvement" time slot because it came from one of ABC's production partners, DreamWorks. By fulfilling that obligation, ABC lost "3rd Rock From the Sun" to NBC, and wound up having to yank the low-rated "Champs" after four telecasts.
Similar commitments were made to Roseanne, who in 1992 foisted a comedy on ABC starring her then-husband Tom Arnold, "The Jackie Thomas Show," in the coveted berth following her show; and to the producers of "Home Improvement," who produced "Thunder Alley" (with Ed Asner), the short-lived "Buddies" and now the Dan Aykroyd sitcom "Soul Man," which has struggled against NBC's "Mad About You."
Instability has also characterized ABC's schedule. Since "Home Improvement" became an immediate success in 1991 playing at 8:30 p.m. Tuesdays, a new program has started every year in that slot. Of those shows--"Hangin' With Mr. Cooper," "Phenom" (starring Judith Light of "Who's the Boss?"), "Me and the Boys," "Hudson Street" (featuring "Boss" co-star Tony Danza), "Life's Work" and "Over the Top"--only "Mr. Cooper" lasted more than one season.
Some questioned canceling a few of those shows, since "Me and the Boys" (starring Steve Harvey, who now has a sitcom on the WB network) and "Phenom" exhibited marginal ratings promise. Given its dearth of hits, ABC has also been second-guessed for cutting loose "Clueless" and "Sister, Sister," which now run on UPN and WB, respectively.
The inability to develop programs capable of replacing "Roseanne," "Coach" and "Full House" has left "Home Improvement" an increasingly lonely island ratings-wise, with poor results at 9:30 p.m. even taking a minor toll on "NYPD Blue."
"Home Improvement" initially maintained a solid margin over "Frasier"--beating the four-time Emmy winner by an average 6 million viewers per week two seasons ago, and well over 4 million last year.
But with the night's other comedies collapsing around it, "Home Improvement" recently lost to "Frasier" for the first time and has done so in successive weeks. While some might argue that "Home Improvement" has tired creatively, ABC seemed immune to such considerations when "Roseanne" provided a second anchor to help prop up the night.
The decline clearly concerns "Home Alone's" Allen, who intimated at an event last week that he might be unwilling to return for an eighth season without securing assurances that ABC will take steps to fortify its Tuesday lineup.
Yet ABC seems to lack the armament necessary to achieve a rapid turnaround, especially with NBC's "Just Shoot Me" developing its own following after "Frasier." ABC is revising Tuesdays later this month, but the new 8 p.m. show will be "Grace Under Fire"--a series whose long-term prospects remain suspect, due both to last season's drop in ratings and the mercurial nature of star Brett Butler, who on more than one occasion has sought treatment for addiction to painkillers.
"Home Improvement" co-creator Carmen Finestra said he and his partners still believe ABC erred by shifting their show from Wednesdays--where it reigned as TV's top-rated program for the 1993-94 season--to Tuesdays to counter "Frasier." Rather than establish one dominant night to create a breeding ground for new series, as NBC did on Thursdays, ABC instinctively sought to protect its Tuesday franchise and weakened both nights.
Paul Schulman, who runs a media-buying agency, said the real problem Tuesday has been ABC's failure to come up with programs for the 8 p.m. hour.
"It's not a disastrous night," he said. "It used to be their best night, and now their best night is Wednesday."
ABC has made renewed strides Wednesdays behind "The Drew Carey Show," "Spin City" and "Dharma & Greg"--more adult-oriented shows (none have children in the cast) seemingly incompatible with "Home Improvement." Schulman expressed reservations about tampering with Wednesdays, since that combination appears to be clicking.
How ABC goes about rebuilding Tuesday, then, will say much about its direction: whether the network will seek to emulate the hip urbanity to which ratings-leader NBC aspires, or to embrace the family audience that worked for "Home Improvement" and with which Disney is so strongly identified.
Whatever path ABC chooses, the history of its Tuesday lineup remains a cautionary tale--one NBC may want to study with Jerry Seinfeld still contemplating the merits of a 10th season on his eponymous show, the ratings for "Union Square" doing a fair impersonation of those for post-"Friends" flop "The Single Guy" and negotiations to renew "ER" just around the corner.