UPFRONT 2: Programming Report – The Time-Slot Chronicles – A show-by-show, blow-by-blow analysis of who’s skewing whom

By Eric Schmuckler


Monday at 9 p.m.

NBC made a big move in dropping its successful Monday movie and challenging CBS’ veteran but vulnerable comedy bastion with a batch of ‘Girls at Work’ sitcoms. The 8 p.m. battle between CBS’ Cosby and NBC’s Suddenly Susan is not a direct contest, since the latter’s young female skew is a far cry from Cosby’s geriatric appeal. CBS may call it a success, but in adults 25-54, Cos pulled a 14 share and ranked a whopping 50th, making it the Murder, She Wrote of sitcoms.

The linchpin here is the 9 p.m. catfight. Everyone picks Cybill in household ratings by a share point or two, say a 17 share to a 15. However, rating-watchers feel Caroline will claw out an edge in women 18-49. ‘Clearly, it’s Caroline in demos,’ says Bob Igiel, executive vice president at Young & Rubicam. ‘The only thing that could mess it up is Ally McBeal, Fox’s lady-lawyer drama with a Dream On-ish gimmick.

Consistently underrated as a time-period hit, Caroline surprised people last year by fighting off ABC’s much-touted Spin City on Tuesday. But let’s not get carried away. Caroline enjoyed a strong, compatible lead-in from Frasier and has never played on the hour, while Cybill showed it can hold the fort at 9 o’clock. Steve Sternberg of BJK&E Media points out that Caroline will get a much weaker lead-in from Fired Up than Cybill will from Everybody Loves Raymond, a budding sophomore hit. Young-skewing competition from Fox and The WB will hurt NBC more than CBS, he adds.

Most people give NBC a fighting chance overall on Monday, but one buyer lays out the obvious worst-case assessment, dismissing its comedies as ‘so much post-Seinfeld flotsam and jetsam. Their entire strategy is misguided; none of these comedies has proved itself. The emperor will have no clothes come October.’

That would be interesting, since NBC has sworn it will not bring its movie back. That would be a sales nightmare for advertisers who paid sitcom CPMs. To ameliorate the inevitable fallout, the net bought nearly 20 third-runs each of Seinfeld and Frasier. Igiel suggests it could vamp with big movie specials during sweeps and limp through the rest.A show-by-show, blow-by-blow analysis of who’s skewing whomBy Eric Schmuckler



Tuesday at 8 p.m.

Paul Reiser finally wrestled Roseanne to the ground last season, and the diva’s departure leaves Mad About You a formidable incumbent. As well, the show is hotter than a loaded diaper after huge ratings for the couple’s childbirth episode last month. Some worrywarts note that babies have been known to ruin series–(‘With baby storylines, it’s not quite the same show anymore,’ says Sternberg)–but this is clearly the show to beat.

Manifesting himself in the time period is Dan Aykroyd as Soul Man. Analysts figure the show ought to do well enough, with perhaps a 15 share to Mad’s 17. ‘It’s got some things going for it,’ says Igiel. ‘If it’s written right, it could have a lot of warmth.’ Certainly the time period could use a family show, though special mention must be made of The WB’s Dawson’s Creek, a coming-of-age series for December that looks like the most promising drama of the season.

Soul Man requires a large leap of faith. The show appeared just three times this spring, each time hammocked between special airings of Home Improvement. (Wind Dancer, a Disney-tied outfit, makes both shows.) This brilliant bit of producer politicking secured the lead-off spot, which could prove more a curse than a blessing. Soul Man went from a 22 share to a 19 to a 16 in those outings. ‘That frightens me,’ says Paul Schulman, president of a self-named media-buying firm. ‘If that was an EKG, the patient dies.’

If Soul Man tanks, NBC might finally drag some ratings out of NewsRadio at 8:30; it faces ABC’s Tim Curry-Annie Potts vehicle, Over the Top, the net’s worst comedy pilot. Also on Tuesday is CBS’ attempt to challenge ABC’s NYPD Blue with Danny Aiello as Dellaventura. Conventional wisdom calls this one crime show too many, but Blue is slipping and the Aiello show is, shall we say, written more for the masses. ‘Dellaventura is not as subtle as The Equalizer,’ says Igiel. ‘If there’s an opportunity for a more direct action show, here it is.’



Wednesday at 9 p.m.

Wednesday is all over the place. At 8, most prognosticators see CBS’ The Nanny as a lock with a 16 share and dismiss The Tony Danza Show on NBC as a 12-share also-ran. But The Nanny was never that strong and has been sliding of late, while the Danza pilot had its supporters. ABC will continue its quest to do NBC-type shows by slotting Spin City, which performed ably but failed to live up to expectations last season on Tuesday at 9:30. ‘It could have some real difficulty at 8,’ notes a buyer. At 8:30, ABC’s charming hippie/yuppie romantic odd couple, Dharma and Greg, better suits its lead-in than does CBS’ Murphy Brown, on its last trot ’round the track before the glue factory. As for NBC’s ethnic Built to Last–it ain’t.

The main event at 9 matches two young hits, and the consensus is that Drew Carey will edge out 3rd Rock, both in households (call it a 17 to a 16 share) and in demos. ‘Drew gets a broader audience, and an incumbent hit usually beats a transplanted hit,’ notes Sternberg. He sees Drew easily winning young women, though male ratings will be very close. It’s a shame, Schulman laments, because ‘now neither show will get the chance to grow. With Party of Five on Fox and Star Trek: Voyager on UPN,’ he adds, ‘there’s something for everyone in the time period.’

At 10, CBS caps off a wacky night of scheduling–why is Bryant Gumbel’s new program plopped between two female-appeal shows when the host is known to have treacherous scores among women?–by importing Chicago Hope to tackle NBC’s amazingly resilient Law & Order. The crime drama has done well among women more or less by default, but Hope has been slipping a bit on Monday and now inherits a tougher slot. Law & Order ought to end up neck and neck with ABC’s PrimeTime Live, while CBS insiders acknowledge that if the net needs to fall back to a second movie night, it will likely happen here.



thursday at 9 p.m.

Thursday is always a cliffhanger. Is there any chance the other three nets will collectively come close to NBC’s monster numbers? This is essentially a horse race for second place, third if you count CBS’ geezer-inflated numbers for Diagnosis Murder. Both entrants are promising dramas–Cracker, an Americanization of the gritty British detective show, and 413 Hope Street, an urban social drama.

Thursday has been ABC’s blackest hole (though Saturday is darkening rapidly), slaying a slew of quality dramas in recent years. Meanwhile, Fox has carved a profitable niche against NBC’s Thursday tsunami with a black-oriented lineup, running second in most sales demos. The net decided to bench its tiring 9 o’clock drama, New York Undercover, in favor of this new show, which ‘rips into the human condition,’ as Fox program boss Peter Roth put it. (It couldn’t hurt that Hope Street, unlike its predecessor, is produced by Fox.) Most observers believe that Cracker will edge out Hope in households–an 11 share to a 10, if you’re keeping score–but give the demo edge to Fox.

‘Hope Street is their latest Party of Five,’ says Barry Cooper, BBDO’s manager of network analysis. ‘It’ll get tremendous press and take a year or two to catch on, if they leave it there.’ Adds Igiel, ‘Hope Street can exist on an urban ethnic audience with powerful demos. But I’m not sure if Cracker has enough going for it; Diagnosis Murder is easier to watch.’

The big question on Thursday, of course, is whether NBC will succeed in launching its first true hit there since Friends in 1994. So far, the evidence is not overwhelming. Some people just hated Union Square at 8:30, a show that boasts a badly cast lead actress but an impeccable pedigree from NBC Studios. Most people liked what they saw of Veronica’s Closet, the Kirstie Alley vehicle in the cushy 9:30 slot; they project a 27 share, an acceptable 3-point drop from Seinfeld. But at least one buyer shaved several more shares when the network declined to provide a full pilot, never an auspicious sign.



friday at 9 p.m.

CBS is making a strategic bid to improve its demos by mirroring the en-trenched TGIF kiddiecom block on ABC. CBS program chief Leslie Moonves snatched away two of his old Warner Bros. productions, Family Matters and Step by Step, to bookend his 8-10 p.m. block. At 8, the Tiffany network will broadcast in Urkelvision, placing Family Matters smack- dab in its old ABC berth, against that net’s sophomore success, Sabrina. Two rookies square off at 9. Can CBS connect with a kid audience that doesn’t know how to spell the network’s name?

Agency seers recklessly predict the two networks will fragment the audience, with most according ABC a share-point edge–call it 15 to 14 for the night. The discrepancy widens in demos, on the theory that kid viewers are simply unaccustomed to dialing up CBS. And Urkel’s ratings have been headed south for years. Asks one buyer, ‘If they don’t grab ’em with Family Matters, will they grab ’em with Meego (Bronson Pinchot as Mork on decaf at 8:30)?

Their whole Friday could be in deep clam dip. But Sternberg believes that ‘people are used to watching Family Matters at 8 o’clock. Kids know how to switch channels and can find what they want. It’s easy to say one network will winbut both will do OK.’

The Gregory Hines Show, facing ABC’s gimmicky Genie at 9, is a special case, because analysts love the show. Says Betsy Frank, Zenith Media’s program guru, ‘It looks like a real quality program, and the way Hines presented it (to advertisers) was very touching. But the network is certainly aware that it doesn’t have the best promotional platform in the world. How do you tell people you have programming for them when you’ve never had it before? Qualitatively, CBS is ahead here, but ABC is the incumbent and has the ratings advantage.’ Fret not, though. ‘Hines is the next Raymond,’ says BBDO’s Cooper. ‘It’s a good show in the wrong time period and they’ll move it.’



Saturday at 10 p.m.

With the heartland firmly in CBS’ grip on Saturday, NBC threw the long ball and scheduled three hours of urban thrillers last season. ‘They took a big risk with expensive programs on a night when conventional wisdom held that educated young men didn’t watch TV, and they were pretty successful,’ notes Betsy Frank. Now ABC, which has lately pulled cable-level ratings on Saturday, takes a page from NBC’s playbook and slots three hours of urban action and drama. Most notable are Steven Bochco’s Total Security with James Belushi at 9 p.m., and the David Kelley lawyer show, The Practice, at 10 p.m. ‘Who else would put Bochco and Kelley on Saturday night?’ Frank wonders.

The result is hardly a battle of titans. Walker, Texas Ranger (on CBS) will get a 20 share, and the other two shows will split 24 share points at most,’ says Schulman. Some score it even lower, giving the incumbent Profiler a 12 to 10 lead. Walker is a knockout with men and Profiler does well among young women, leaving ABC little daylight. One buyer notes that The Practice will get little help from its Total Security lead-in, which in turn will get no support from the mediocre actioner, C16: FBI, at 8 p.m. BJK&E’s Sternberg feels Walker has a distinct advantage in that Saturday viewers prefer self-contained episodes in case they’re forced to actually leave the house and miss a few weeks.

‘The Practice is a very fine show,’ says Frank, ‘but ABC’s record with drama on Saturday is less than stellar. Look, NBC gambled and the viewers were there, so maybe there’s more of them than we think. But NBC did it first and I think ABC is coming into this too late.’ This time period illustrates a more insidious problem, she adds: overlapping program strategies, also seen in NBC’s Monday comedies and CBS’s Friday kiddie gambit. ‘It seems like the object is to kill the other guy,’ she says, ‘but I don’t think head-to-head, like-to-like programming is the best way to grow the medium.’



sunday at 8:30 p.m.

Just a few years ago, Sunday at 8 was among the most hard-fought squares on the grid. Since then, CBS has ascended with Touched by an Angel and ABC has shifted to a family movie, whose ratings will vary wildly between theatrical blockbusters and run-of-the-mill made-fors. That leaves NBC and Fox to slug it out with sitcoms. NBC tackled the hour with Men Behaving Badly (this is family viewing?) and added a comedy with McCarthy, the MTV-generated bombshell; Fox stood pat with its animated parlay of The Simpsons and King of the Hill.

The real question in this time period: What the hell is NBC thinking? No one believes Men Behaving Badly belongs in the critical 8 o’clock slot. ‘NBC has deluded themselves into thinking they can promote Men and Jenny in football,’ scoffs one observer. Word is that NBC nearly canceled Men but held on because Fox was ready to grab it. Maybe the network simply ran out of shows and had to throw something on.

Men is estimated at a 12 share and Jenny a point lower, which may be generous. Many viewers of the Jenny ‘presentation’ (full pilot unavailable–another flashing red light) found it painfully unfunny. Sniped one: ‘If they don’t get Jenny in a bikini by week two, she won’t be on for week three.’ Fox, meanwhile, has a bona fide hit: King will drag The Simpsons back into the top 20 in demos and it boosts The X-Files, too. Figure the animated hour for a 14 or 15 share with terrific demos. It also doesn’t hurt that Fox has finally solved its 7 p.m. problem with the World’s Funniest video clip show.

The nets talked a lot about dropping their Sunday movies–CBS’ scenario of Touched into Early Edition into Chicago Hope was intriguing–but it didn’t happen. ‘People are thinking about going back to work,’ explains Betsy Frank. ‘It’s hard to know if you’ll be able to watch a series on Sunday.’ Given the deterioration in network shares, though, that is becoming a seven-night-a-week concern. n

Copyright ASM Communications, Inc. (1997) ALL RIGHTS RESERVED