UPFRONT 2: Programming Report – The Prime-Time Shuffle TV executives gamble on time-slot changes in hopes of boosting ratings

By Betsy Sharkey

Peter Roth says moving The X-Files from Friday to Sunday night was the most difficult decision the network made when it was piecing together last season’s prime-time lineup. ‘It was a huge risk,’ recalls Roth, the man who guides Fox’s prime-time schedule. ‘But our gamble paid off. It turned a cult hit into a cultural phenomenon.’

While The X-Files did well on Friday nights, it has become virtually unbeatable on Sunday, long the most-watched night of the week. The move helped bolster the bottom line with a 51 percent jump in viewers 18-54 and a 28 percent increase in what advertisers now identify as their most desired demographic, those 18-49. ‘The Shining couldn’t beat us; The Last Don couldn’t beat us; 20,000 Leagues couldn’t beat us,’ says Roth, ticking off a few of the high-profile made-for-television movies that competing networks have lined up to compete with The X-Files on Sunday night.

A similar prime-time scheduling shuffle, however, didn’t do a thing to help ABC drama Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman. The show fared well for the network on Sunday night at 8 p.m., dominating the younger demos even though its longtime CBS competitor, Murder, She Wrote, usually won the night in households. Then Murder was killed off and CBS dropped in its sleeper hit, Touched by an Angel, which grabbed a huge audience of younger viewers this year. ABC bounced Lois & Clark to Saturday night, hoping to do to Dr. Quinn what they had successfully done to Murder–siphon off younger viewers. But the established drama was like Kryptonite for the man of steel, and the move sent the series into an even deeper dive in ratings. Now Lois & Clark won’t be back next season.

‘Moving (to a new day or time slot) can be very disturbing and can severely hurt the potential of a show,’ says Eric Tannenbaum, who oversees TV series development as president of Columbia TriStar Television. ‘You think you’re working on a certain night and you get moved; we’ve gone through it with Mad About You and The Nanny.’

The Nanny worked for CBS on Monday night. Hoping to build on that strength, the network shifted it to Wednesday this past season. ‘It helped CBS open the night, but you never like to take a show you know isn’t broken and see it moved,’ says Tannenbaum. ‘The best move for Mad About You was taking it off Saturday night and moving it to Thursday (in 1993)–it became a hit.’

Then NBC moved Mad About You to Sunday night in the fall of ’95. Star Paul Reiser was so upset by the decision that he declined to show up when the network announced the new schedule. The show’s audience drifted and Mad About You suffered for a season on Sunday night. However, the show just wrapped up its first season on yet another night–Tuesday–where it seems to have found a home.

‘Jamie and Paul can finally unpack their bags,’ says NBC Entertainment chief Warren Littlefield, of the characters played by Reiser and co-star Helen Hunt. Mad About You will be back next fall, same time, same night: 8 p.m. Tuesday.

But Mad About You was one of the few comedies that Littlefield’s scheduling team left in place on the new fall schedule. Caroline in the City begins its third season in the fall–in its third time slot. Last September, the show had to give up the extreme safety of Thursday night between NBC hits Seinfeld and ER and take on a less protected spot at 9:30 p.m. on Tuesday between Frasier and Dateline.

‘We bet on Caroline to go against Spin City (on ABC starring Michael J. Fox), and it’s done well,’ says Littlefield. ‘It’s narrowed the gap by 39 percent (in that time period in adults 18-49).’ Next year, NBC will use Caroline to help build a new Monday-night comedy franchise that will also see Suddenly Susan leave Thursday nights to kick off NBC Mondays at 8 p.m.

‘One of the things that makes a successful show is time slot,’ says Garry Marshall, whose television legacy includes Happy Days and Laverne & Shirley. ‘If you’re after Seinfeld, that’s great. Then when you have to go out there alone, it’s scary.’

What happens to a show when the network moves it depends on so many variables that assessing its ultimate outcome is difficult at best. The moves and counter-moves can become a fast-moving chess game. When NBC moved Frasier to Tuesday night in 1994 because executives believed Roseanne drew a different, more female audience, ABC countered by shifting Roseanne to Wednesday night and pumping in Home Improvement, at the time the No. 1-rated show on television.

Many TV executives and a fair number of top media buyers predicted that both shows would suffer and one would probably not survive. Home Improvement did lose its lock on No. 1. It’s questionable whether either show could have held up against ER. But ultimately both Home Improvement and Frasier thrived. Audiences turned up for both, and both are consistently ranked in the top 10.

‘The impact of a move also depends on whether you’re in a good or bad time slot to begin with,’ says Brad Johnson, president of Bungalow 78 Productions, which produced the long-running ABC hit Coach. ‘Everybody Loves Raymond on CBS was languishing on Friday night; when they gave it a shot on Monday night, it blossomed,’ he says. ‘But when you’re leaving a good time slot to go to a risky one, you look for a couple of things from the network–assurances that they’re going to promote the show and educate the viewers about the move, and some assurances that if you don’t do well, it won’t be a permanent move. We’ll be good soldiers, but please don’t make us a sacrificial lamb.’

Coach may hold the all-time move record. By the time the show finished its nine-season run this May, it had been moved 18 times, on four different nights, in seven different time slots–and had been put on hiatus five times. Despite that, Coach managed to improve its numbers in each new time period. But the creators still wonder what it might have done if it had not hopscotched across the schedule.

‘You can never underestimate how hard it is for viewers to follow a network schedule,’ says Johnson. ‘People are creatures of habit.’

It also makes a difference which night of the week a show lands on. That became clear with the ABC drama Relativity, whose target audience was adults 18-34. The show found itself on Saturday at 10 p.m., probably the one time on the prime-time schedule when that audience was least likely to be home, parked in front of the TV.

‘If you’re a drama and you’re on Tuesday, Wednesday or Thursday at 10 p.m., you know you’re going to get a good audience because the HUT (households using television) levels are high,’ Johnson says. ‘Then, if you fail, you can only blame yourself.’

There is a sense among those who create, write and produce the shows that networks are making more moves and that the moves are coming much faster. ‘A quick trigger finger,’ is how one studio executive described it.

‘It’s always a gamble,’ says Columbia Tri-Star’s Tannenbaum. ‘But it takes big, bold moves to open a night, and at the end of the day the network’s going to program the way they want to.’

In explaining the Fox strategy for next fall, Roth argues that his network’s schedule, with virtually no moves in the face of significant changes on Fox’s three largest competitors, offers viewers stability. And that stability is a commodity that TV audiences want.

‘Ours is a calculated stability against a world of chaos,’ says Roth. ‘There is wisdom in the simplicity of stability.’

Next season, with major show shifts at NBC, ABC and CBS, simplicity, stability and the art of the move in network prime time will be put to the test.

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