What if the networks gave a new season and nobody watched?


October 10, 1990|By Michael Hill

Round one of the TV ratings match ended last week with a very close three-way contest among the networks.

Round two will be dominated by CBS coverage of baseball, and the various schemes to counter it, while round three will feature the first strategy from the cornermen -- cancellations and moves -- followed by a variety of jabs and haymakers during November's sweep month.

It is clear from tracking the daily Nielsen data that the big news continues to be that there is no big news.

The new shows just aren't making much of a splash while a sitcom in its ninth year leads the list. That would be "Cheers," benefiting from its lack of competition, the challenge to "The Cosby Show" by "The Simpsons" and the failing of "Roseanne" and "America's Funniest Home Videos" to rise to the head of the class.

Otherwise, NBC has failed to turn rapper Will Smith into a big star and "Fresh Prince of Bel Air" into a big hit. Indeed, CBS is holding its own on Mondays at 8 o'clock with "Uncle Buck."

On Wednesday night, three new comedies, all of which are pretty good, have found ratings trouble. CBS has already pulled "Lenny." NBC's "The Fanelli Boys" is getting killed by "Doogie Howser" over on ABC, but then ABC's "Married People" can't hold on to the audience. "Cop Rock" only drops further as people seem to be tuning out on policemen carrying tunes.

Thursday is the night when NBC ought to reign, not only because "Cosby" has been devouring "Simpsons" reruns -- its season starts tomorrow -- but also because of "Cheers'" strength.

But, due to the deal the network agreed to in keeping "Cosby," "Grand" gets to throw away "Cheers'" audience at 9:30 -- which will only increase when CBS moves "Doctor, Doctor" into that time slot -- while the admirable "Law & Order" just does further damage in its limited run on Thursdays at 10.

A couple of other classy comedies are, predictably, suffering in time slots too early for their formats as both CBS' "Evening

Shade" and NBC's "Parenthood" can't find audiences at 8 o'clock on Friday and Saturday, respectively.

NBC gets some relatively good news from "Working it Out" that picks up a few viewers on Saturdays at 8:30, but it's also mis-scheduled, so we're still talking low ratings numbers, though not as low as the single digits recorded by all the old shows that NBC stuck on Friday nights.

ABC isn't getting many viewers to find "China Beach" in its Saturday time slot, but the faithful and demographically desirable few seem to have located "Twin Peaks."

"America's Funniest People" is holding onto those "Funniest Home Videos" viewers for ABC on Sunday, but that's because it doesn't have to go up against "The Simpsons." Over on NBC, "Lifestories" got some artificial respiration from Sunday's football runover, but otherwise it's close to joining its lead-in, "Hull High," in the intensive care ward.

You'll notice that Fox hasn't been mentioned in this. For a good reason. Hardly anyone is watching its shows. OK, people have been watching "The Simpsons" -- and more will join them when the new episodes start -- and "Married . . . with Children" and "In Living Color," which is definitely hurting "Funniest Home Videos." A few have been watching the show hammocked between those last two, "Get a Life."

Otherwise, though, it's black hole city for Fox. "Babes," in the post-"Simpsons" slot, loses viewers every week. After a promising start, "Parker Lewis Can't Lose" is losing. Even being set in Baltimore isn't helping "True Colors."

You've got to wonder what the Fox brass were thinking when they put on nine new shows, out of 15, this season. Even for the veterans, with plenty of protected time slots, the survival rate for newcomers is maybe 20 percent. To build your whole schedule around tyros is just asking for trouble. And the Fox programming cupboard is bare. It's a good bet that Fox wishes it had "21 Jump Street" and "Alien Nation" around right now.

What seems to be happening thus far this season is a leveling off in the ratings. One network -- NBC on Thursday, ABC on Wednesday -- will start the night off strong, then lose the viewers. With nobody to dominate, slow but steady CBS can close the gap.

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