Are 'Homicide' ratings DOA? NBC's scheduling may prove fatal to Levinson's series

February 24, 1993|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,Television Critic

Barry Levinson's "Homicide" is getting killed in the ratings. And things are not likely to get any better tonight, with the series going head-to-head against the second hour of the Grammy Awards show on CBS.

In fact, since its post-Super Bowl launch on Jan. 31, "Homicide" has started to look like a case study in how not to schedule a quality show.

The official word this week from NBC is that the network is "still very high on the show," according to spokeswoman Rosemary O'Brien.

Further encouragement for "Homicide" fans can be found in Don Ohlmeyer, NBC's new West Coast president, who reportedly said last week that he likes "Homicide" and that it's the kind of quality program the network will nurture. NBC President Bob Wright gave Ohlmeyer the No. 2 job at the network last month along with a mandate to try to salvage something from a prime-time schedule that is in shambles.

But sources at the network also said this week that "Homicide" is not likely to be moved out of the "Death Valley" time slot of 9 Wednesday nights. The series is going to have to live or die in what just might be the toughest period in prime time.

How tough is it? Remember the first week of the new TV season? "Seinfeld" held the 9 p.m. Wednesday slot on NBC opposite "Home Improvement" on ABC and "Melrose Place" on Fox. USA Today ran the banner headline, "Why Must We Choose?" over a story bemoaning the counterprogramming.

"Seinfeld" languished in the bottom 30 of prime-time shows all season as a result of its battle with "Home Improvement" until it was moved to Thursday nights and "Homicide" got its slot. Since then, "Seinfeld" has vaulted into the top 20.

"Home Improvement," which has been in the top 10 all season, meanwhile has become the highest rated regular series on all of TV since "Seinfeld" was replaced by "Homicide." It appears that ABC's good fortune was the result of another slight miscalculation by the programming gurus at NBC.

When asked in January about the killer time period for "Homicide," a network vice president explained it was mainly a matter of "good audience flow."

"Unsolved Mysteries" at 8 on Wednesday nights was a "reality" series, and "Law and Order" at 10 looked like a reality series. So "Homicide," which looked and felt like a reality series, should fit nicely between them and keep the audience flowing straight through prime time on NBC, according to Kevin Reilly, vice president for dramatic development.

It's a good theory except for one thing: It turned out that the folks who had been watching NBC at 9 and 9:30 Wednesday nights all season -- "Seinfeld" and "Mad About You" -- were comedy fans. When "Homicide" arrived, and those viewers couldn't find comedy on NBC, they switched to "Home Improvement," which drove ABC's ratings even higher. So much for "reality" flow and the NBC brain trust.

The rest is ratings history. "Homicide" started on a widely publicized high after the Super Bowl, but reality set in Feb. 3 in its first outing against "Home Improvement," when it got a 9.8 rating and a 13 share.

Things got worse the next week, Feb. 10, when the second half hour of "Homicide" ran into Oprah Winfrey's interview of Michael Jackson. "Homicide" had a 7.0 rating and a 10 share.

Last week, "Homicide" was preempted by President Clinton's address to the nation, and tonight, the Grammy Awards show. This is not best-of-all-worlds scheduling.

Back in January, Reilly said NBC's expectations for "Homicide" ratings were "modest," because of the time period. When pressed for a bottom-line figure of acceptability, Reilly said that if the show were "hovering around a 10 share," the network would have to re-evaluate it

The task "Homicide" faces is to put some distance between itself and the 7.0 rating and 10 share it had against Oprah and Michael.

Whether or not "Homicide" is picked up for next season is going to depend on what happens in March. The network knows tonight is a wipeout because of the Grammys. But it has a terrific episode starring Moses Gunn scheduled for March 3. The network sent that episode out to TV critics, who loved the pilot, for preview. NBC is still promoting the series.

But the cast and crew have been given no indication so far that they will be allowed to come back to Baltimore this spring to tape the three finished scripts that Levinson has delivered to the network. With each passing day, it becomes less likely that those three shows will be made for airdates this season.

The word at NBC is that as soon as "Homicide" finishes its eight-week run, its weekly time spot will be taken over by a new prime-time newsmagazine starring Faith Daniels. Whereas "Homicide" costs NBC about a million dollars an episode to make, the magazine will cost NBC less than $400,000.

In the economics of network TV, guess which show has the edge in being renewed?

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