NBC back-pedals from 'youth' focus it'll be all ages in fall

March 25, 1993|By Ian Johnson | Ian Johnson,New York Bureau

New York -- During a sneak preview of its fall prime-tim lineup yesterday, NBC executives said they have lured some big names to help return the network to its 1980s popularity and have abandoned much-criticized efforts to win a strictly young audience.

With its ratings far below ABC and CBS and its journalistic reputation soiled by a rigged test crash of a GM truck, the network put on its fall preview earlier than usual in a bid to show advertising agents that next fall's shows will be worth their client's money.

"Tonight Show" host Jay Leno opened the presentation with a monologue that lightly jabbed at the network's problems. "Talk about beleaguered," he said of Don Ohlmeyer, head of West Coast operations who also oversees entertainment programming.

"There's no question that NBC has gone through a dry spell. Our job now is to stop the bleeding," said Mr. Ohlmeyer, who was hired last month to revive the network's sinking prime-time lineup.

To replace some of the popular shows that NBC nonchalantly dismissed last year -- such as "Golden Girls" and "Matlock" -- because they didn't fit its emphasis on youth, the network has hired such stars as Gene Wilder for a show called "Eligible Dentist," Bill Cosby, who will be back for four two-hour shows and possibly a series, and Henry Winkler to star in a show about a conservative talk-show host who faces a hectic family life.

Mr. Ohlmeyer said the new shows would aim for a wider audience than just teen-agers and 20-year-olds, a group some advertisers said had been wooed to the exclusion of older viewers.

Nielsen numbers show that of U.S. households with television sets, 13.5 percent watch CBS, 12.4 percent watch ABC and 11.1 percent watch NBC. Through much of the 1980s, NBC was the constant ratings winner with popular comedies and dramas aimed at adults.

This fall, Mr. Ohlmeyer said, NBC will expand its target audience to 18- to 54-year-olds, giving equal emphasis to younger and older members of that broad group.

"We've talked about this with our advertisers and they are comfortable with it," NBC Entertainment President Warren Littlefield said.

Many of the shows featured at the presentation had a strong family slant, including one about two pregnant women called "The Mommies" and another featuring comedian John Caponera a blue-collar crusader against the politically correct.

Although advertisers were bombarded during the presentation with dozens of series, fewer than a dozen are expected to make the fall lineup, which is slated to be announced after the May sweeps.

While the sweeps will be a chance for NBC to recoup lost ground, part of that success could come from yet another departing show, "Cheers." Mr. Littlefield said the sweeps week would be bolstered by a one-hour farewell show devoted to clips of past "Cheers" shows, while another hour would feature a massive going-away party for the cast hosted by Mr. Leno.

In using Mr. Leno's show as a backdrop to the presentation, NBC was also highlighting his success in overcoming a rocky start and ensconcing himself as the top-rated comedian in his time slot. NBC figures show that the "Tonight Show's" rating climbed from 4.3 percent last fall to 4.7 percent this month.

Although the "Tonight Show" will face competition from David Letterman when he leaves NBC for CBS later this year, Mr. Littlefield pledged to support Mr. Leno and to develop a credible host to replace Mr. Letterman. The creator of "Late Night With David Letterman," Lorne Michaels, is scouting for prospects and has a list of 20 that will be whittled down to a final choice by April 15, he said.

While the advertisers could not be asked their reaction to the presentation -- the show was private and media could only see it through a TV monitor -- it is widely believed NBC ads are selling at a discount compared to other networks and that the network will suffer a heavy financial loss this year.

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