Olympics' end means the real contest begins NBC hopes to vault to 'gold' in the Nielsen games

August 10, 1992|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,Television Critic

The Olympics are over, but NBC's "Olympics' strategy" for the new fall season is only beginning.

Facing one of the most important prime-time TV seasons in its history, NBC is wasting no time in trotting out new episodes of hit shows in hopes of cashing in on the large audiences that have been watching the games.

Consequently, the new fall season starts tonight to some extent on NBC when its teen hit, "Blossom," returns. (The show is not scheduled to air in Baltimore, because WMAR-Channel 2 plans to pre-empt it for the Orioles-Blue Jays game.) Wednesday night, "Seinfeld" is back with a new episode at 9 on Channel 2. Sunday, the controversial but popular "I Witness Video" and another new reality show, "The Secret Service Files," start their fall seasons.

One of NBC's aims was to use the Olympics as a "platform" to promote its fall schedule, according to Warren Littlefield, the president of NBC Entertainment. But to make it work, the network had to get some shows on the air right after the games, rather than waiting until the week of Sept. 13 when the bulk of new fall shows debut. The thinking is that most of the promotional messages would be forgotten by viewers in the month between the end of the games and the start of the fall season. And there is no such thing as network loyalty in the new, multi-channel TV universe.

NBC went about choosing the shows it would bring back this week with care. It did not want to make the mistake CBS made during the Winter Olympics when it wasted hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of advertising time promoting two new series, "Scorch" and "Fish Police," which bombed and were canceled instantly.

"Seinfeld" and "Blossom" are both proven winners, though neither is a Top 20 hit. "Blossom" finished 33rd overall last season, according to Nielsen; "Seinfeld" ranked 36th out of 102 prime-time series. But both win their time periods and deliver great, young demographics.

And young audiences are key -- especially for NBC, which is hearing some analysts predict that the fourth network, Fox, is going to finish third overall for the first time this year, with NBC dropping to fourth.

Fox, once again, has gotten a head start on NBC and the other traditional networks by airing new episodes of hit series during the summer. In fact, one Fox Wednesday night of "Beverly Hills 90210" and "Melrose Place" recently finished ahead of NBC for the first time.

Furthermore, the Wednesday-night victory for Fox came during the "up-front" buying season -- when up to 85 percent of all advertising for the new fall season was being bought. NBC has not enjoyed a good up-front season, while Fox has. It is no accident that "Seinfeld" is going head-to-head with "Melrose Place" Wednesday. Such hard-nosed counterprogramming tells you how serious NBC is about beating Fox.

NBC is also using another trick that has served Fox well in recent years: Both "Blossom and "Seinfeld" this week will resolve season-ending cliffhangers.

For the last two years, "Beverly Hills 90210" has involved cliffhangers. In one, viewers were left to wonder whether Brenda (Shannen Doherty) was pregnant after a sexual encounter. This year, Brenda was planning to move out of her parents' home to live with her boyfriend, Dylan (Luke Perry).

Blossom (Mayim Bialek) ended her season in May by running away with her boyfriend. That will be resolved tonight. On "Seinfeld," Jerry (Seinfeld) and George (Jason Alexander) go to Los Angeles Wednesday to find Kramer (Michael Richards).

In themselves, the Olympic games were neither a hit nor a flop for NBC. While they won ratings, they lost money for the network, because of the Triplecast. But the big game -- the 1992-'93 prime-time ratings race -- begins tonight for NBC. And the promotional push of the Olympics could spell the difference between bronze -- or no medal at all.

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