Game of Hard Ball Produces Few Hits

TIMES STAFF WRITER

In a way, the baseball and television calendars present mirror images of each other. The players begin their respective seasons with high hopes in the spring and fall, only to see them met or dashed by the fall and spring.

With cries of "Play ball!" filling the air, television executives--nearing the end of their season--face the grim reminder that television's batting average with new prime-time series would get a ballplayer sent packing to the minor leagues.

At present, only six out of three dozen network series that premiered last fall on the six broadcast networks are certain of being renewed. Another half-dozen remain in contention but won't learn their fate until May, when networks set next season's prime-time lineups.

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Despite much discussion about the merits of patience, the network cancellation rate on new programs has historically been high. During the previous three seasons, the major networks ordered 92 new prime-time programs and renewed 21, with six more coming back on different channels.

ABC appears destined to renew only two of 11 shows the network introduced last fall--the Wednesday sitcom "Dharma & Greg" and "The Wonderful World of Disney." "Veronica's Closet" and "Working" will definitely return from eight programs NBC tried out, with Tony Danza's latest comeback among the casualties. None of seven freshmen series CBS scheduled in September at this point is assured a sophomore year, and UPN has axed all but one of its newcomers.

Fox came away with a home run out of four new series with "Ally McBeal." In similar fashion, the WB network got off to a rousing start by its standards with the teen drama "Dawson's Creek," which premiered in January--the same month that, in past years, produced Fox's "King of the Hill" and NBC's "3rd Rock From the Sun."

A few of the latest spring tryouts--such as ABC's "Two Guys, a Girl and a Pizza Place"--have also shown ratings promise, with a handful more to come. Others have received a quick hook, including the CBS soap "Four Corners" and Fox's "Significant Others."

Increased competition and corresponding difficulties establishing new series have fostered apprehension within the television business. With millions of dollars invested in developing, producing and promoting each new program, officials are left to contemplate whether there's a better way, and if the rules of the game have changed.

"The way the system is currently devised, you have 40 new shows premiering in a couple-of-week period," said Jay Sures, co-head of the television department at United Talent Agency. "For the consumer, it's impossible to find what you like immediately, and by the time you do, it's gone."

The 1997-98 season has nevertheless been disheartening to executives, with many new programs being not so much rejected by viewers as simply ignored.

"We've always known the law of averages is way against us on new shows, but something has to change," said Dayna Flanagan, president of Steven Bochco Productions, which is currently fighting to save its first-year CBS drama "Brooklyn South." "We can't proceed throwing perfectly good shows against the wall and having nothing stick."

Many within the television industry point to a fear-driven hunger for immediate success, when history has shown that most worthwhile programs take time to be discovered and embraced by viewers.

As an example, NBC's "Just Shoot Me"--which arrived with little fanfare last spring--now appears to be a contender for a lengthy "Must-See TV" run. In similar fashion, CBS' "Everybody Loves Raymond" struggled on Fridays in its first season but has done better following "Cosby" on Monday nights, already earning renewal for a third season.

Newer networks like WB may have an advantage in that respect, exercising more patience due to modest expectations, allowing second-year dramas "7th Heaven" and "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" to gradually gain viewers.

"There's tremendous pressure on [the established networks] for shows to work instantly, which is not realistic," said WB Entertainment President Garth Ancier. "The nice thing about being at an emerging network is you're not sitting there . . . protecting an ever-shrinking audience."

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Consistency appears to be an asset. Fox benefited from a more conservative approach, offering fewer new programs this season and bringing back returning shows in the same time period.

"That strategy did pay off for us. It fundamentally comes from a point of view respecting the wishes of our viewers," Fox Entertainment Group President Peter Roth said, describing the network's philosophy as "Don't expect the viewers to adhere to our needs, adhere to the needs of the viewer."

Fox will continue to stagger the introduction of new series throughout the year, trying to avoid the "two weeks of network insanity" that occur each fall--"a morass of change [that's] overwhelming to the viewer," Roth said. "I believe that much change drives people away."

NBC has an advantage in its ability to "launch, protect and nurture" new shows, as NBC Entertainment President Warren Littlefield put it, in time slots following known commodities like "Friends," "Seinfeld" or "Frasier."

That said, NBC has sometimes frustrated viewers--and especially producers--by bouncing shows like "3rd Rock" and "Caroline in the City" around its schedule. Littlefield noted that putting together the strongest schedule possible, blanketing seven nights, necessitates a degree of risk.

"If you don't work your building blocks, you won't have growth," he said, citing the shift of "Frasier" from Thursdays to Tuesdays, which eventually became a strong night for NBC. "Step One may be a step backward, in order to take three or four steps forward."

Flanagan thinks networks dilute resources with too much new programming and make changes too quickly. The challenge, she said, is for programmers to identify shows in which they have faith, then promote and stick with them.

"You stand a better chance in picking your spots than trying to make every night your night," she said.

Studios also suggest that networks have made matters worse by going out of their way to stifle competitors' new series. In recent years--fearing that any toehold for someone else would come out of their audience--networks have often stunted to prevent people from sampling another outlet's programs, which tends to produce reciprocal attacks.

Given the myriad channels with which they now compete, it can be counterproductive to operate in "such a state of warfare, when networks are going for the throat, trying to kill off another network's show," said Warner Bros. Television President Tony Jonas.

Because television is a hit-driven business and "nobody has a crystal ball," Jonas said the industry must continue taking chances looking for the next breakthrough show.

How many chances to take, and what sort of pattern, remains the dilemma. Inevitably, given the proliferation of channels and high attrition rate of new series, the WB's Ancier expects networks to reexamine the accepted practice of aggregately launching three dozen series each fall.

"Economically, [the WB] can't afford to do that sort of wanton spending, and I think the time is near when the other networks can't do it either," he said. "This has got to be a more careful business in the coming years."

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