Roseanne's husband risks following leader with 'Jackie Thomas'

December 01, 1992|By New York Times News Service

Even if "The Jackie Thomas Show" is not the new television series most watched by viewers, it will almost surely be the one most closely watched by network executives.

The show, which begins tonight on ABC (WJZ, Channel 13), follows TV's biggest current hit, "Roseanne." What has piqued the industry's curiosity so much is that the new show stars Roseanne Arnold's husband, Tom.

As a team, the Arnolds have shaken up the television industry with many of their moves in recent years. The most audacious move so far was the demand that ABC hand Mr. Arnold's new comedy the 9:30 p.m. time period on Tuesdays, the most prized spot in all television, thanks to "Roseanne."

In "Jackie Thomas," Mr. Arnold plays a comedian with blue-collar roots who, upon becoming a star, also becomes an abrasive, bullying, boorish force full of unending demands on all those around him.

The parallels to Mrs. Arnold's reputation as the most demanding star in television are inescapable -- and intentional.

ABC has reason to hope the real-life scenario plays out differently with Mr. Arnold as a star. Any network needs a strong show to follow its biggest hit because carrying over the hit show's audience gives it twice as many opportunities to earn the most revenue from commercials.

But ABC also needs the freedom to decide a show's fate based on how it performs, not on what the show may mean personally to its biggest star.

The usual criterion for a decision about a show following a hit is the so-called fall-off factor.

In television, shows granted the good fortune to air after the most highly rated shows are held to a standard that does not apply to other new shows: How much do their ratings fall off from the show that precedes them?

CBS is currently applying the fall-off standard to its new series "Love and War," which follows "Murphy Brown" on Monday nights; Fox is using it to judge "Martin," which is teamed with "The Simpsons" on Thursdays; NBC has used it for a decade on all the shows that have followed "Cheers" on Thursday nights; and ABC already has it in effect on Tuesday for a new comedy called "Hangin' With Mr. Cooper," which follows another hit, "Full House."

Some network executives say a show must hold at least four-fifths of the preceding show's audience to be deemed worthy of survival. If the fall-off is too great, a new show can disappear quickly even if its overall ratings look respectable when compared with all the shows in television.

In 1989, for example, an ABC comedy called "Chicken Soup," which starred Jackie Mason as a Jewish pajama salesman in love with a Catholic widow, was canceled after less than two months on the air despite ranking as the 13th-highest-rated show that year.

Initially, the ratings for "Chicken Soup" were high simply because the show was following "Roseanne." But the fall-off was growing every week, and ABC research indicated viewers despised the show.

This year ABC waited only five weeks before dumping a show called "Laurie Hill," about a doctor and her sweet family life, which was severely dissipating the big ratings it was getting from another ABC comedy hit, "Home Improvement," on Wednesday nights.

A network is touchy about the fall-off factor in much the same way a real estate developer hates to see an ugly property going up next door. The overall value of the area is diminished.

The networks need to make the best of revenue opportunities that a hit show generates, both during the show and in the half-hour immediately after it. For that reason they spend a lot of effort on creating proper "flow" between shows, so that the big audience can move smoothly from the hit to the show that follows.

Network research departments have done special studies on audience flow, and how the use of the remote control is changing it.

Fox's audience, which includes many teen-agers, is often tough to hold from one program to the one that follows, according to Andy Fessell, senior vice president of research for Fox. Younger viewers tend to flip through channels almost whimsically, often watching two shows at the same time, he noted.

Fox's "Martin," about a talk-show host for a black radio station, is probably the most successful new show of the season. It is doing better following "The Simpsons" than any previous Fox show has. But Mr. Fessell said "Martin" actually was recruiting most of its own viewers, retaining relatively few from "The Simpsons." That probably means the show can easily be moved.

Alan Wurtzel, senior vice president of research for ABC, said his

network has done "source and disposition" research to track where viewers watching a show come from. "You know a show is doing OK if it retains some level of the audience from the show in front of it," Mr. Wurtzel said. "The hard question is to know when it can survive on its own."

Mr. Wurtzel said ABC has no specific formula for measuring when the fall-off in audience is too severe. But David F. Poltrack, senior vice president of research for CBS, said: "The goal is to hold at least 80 percent of a lead-in. If a show is between 70 [per

cent] and 80 percent, you have to watch it closely. If it's 70 percent and under, you're losing too much. You can't accept that."

Mr. Wurtzel said the prevalence of the remote-control device -- now in 84 percent of homes -- had made transferring viewers from a hit to a following show much more difficult.

A network will try to force-feed the audience into the following show by heavily promoting it within the hit itself. "We've mostly figured out how to open a show," Mr. Wurtzel said. "It's getting them back a second time that determines things."

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