TV season to date: Good, going, gone

November 12, 1993|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,Television Critic

In an interview in July, former Eagles band member and would-be TV star Glenn Frey said he didn't know what a short order was and, frankly, he didn't care.

Frey knows now.

His "South of Sunset" TV series was canceled last week after just one episode aired. It was one of the fastest cancellations in the history of television. And it was canceled in part because of a new practice called a short order, which is spreading throughout the TV industry and changing the way decisions about canceling prime-time shows are made.

There have been a number of other quick kills during the first two months of the TV season.

ABC axed "The Paula Poundstone Show" Wednesday after just two episodes. Peggy Lipton's "Angel Falls" (CBS) and Bronson Pinchot's "The Trouble With Larry" (CBS) were killed after three episodes aired. "It Had To Be You" (CBS), with Faye Dunaway and Robert Urich, was shipped off to the never-never land of "hiatus" four weeks after its debut and is not likely to ever-ever return -- which will make it an even dozen of failed series for Urich.

There are at least another 10 new network series that won't make it to the start of the second season in February. They range from "Townsend Television" and "Daddy Dearest" on Fox to "Against the Grain" and "The Second Half" on NBC, to "Joe's Life" and "Moon Over Miami" on ABC.

If it seems as if the networks are pulling the plug on new shows quicker than ever this year, that's because one network has been doing just that and the others are now starting to follow.

Last spring, industry-leader CBS started the practice of ordering fewer episodes of some less-promising shows upfront -- a short order.

As a result, it can cancel its failures faster this fall without losing millions of dollars for episodes produced but never aired.

"It makes sense both creatively and financially," CBS Group President Howard Stringer says.

"This is a very competitive environment. . . . If we put all our eggs in one fall basket, and commit all our resources to 13 and 20 episodes of a new series sight unseen, it's unrealistic."

Last spring, after looking at pilots from production companies, CBS awarded several new series a spot in its weekly fall lineup, but ordered only six episodes of each instead of the usual minimum of 13.

There was much grumbling from production companies. Some even said they'd take their shows to other networks, if CBS would only commit to six episodes.

But CBS told them to take it or leave it. And all took it.

In the case of "South of Sunset," which costs about $900,000 an episode, CBS saved itself $6.3 million by not having to eat an extra seven episodes.

CBS is again in first place this year and making more money than ever -- in part thanks to the added savings realized by short ordering questionable shows.

As a result, the other three networks are starting to follow CBS' lead -- in deciding to place short orders for next fall and in starting to cancel shows faster this year.

"It's not just the savings -- though, the corporate types upstairs have certainly taken notice of that," said a NBC executive who did not wish to be identified.

"But CBS is now in a position where it can afford to almost instantly kill off shows that would drag down the ratings of other shows. To compete, we have to pull the plug on losers faster, too, even though it costs us more money because we did not short order last spring."

Shows expected to bite the dust by January are: "Family Album" (CBS), "Bob" (CBS), "Moon Over Miami" (ABC), "George" (ABC), "Saved by the Bell: The College Years" (NBC) and "The Second Half" (NBC).

Production has already shut down on "Daddy Dearest," which stars Richard Lewis and Don Rickles. The show loses about 4 million TV homes from its lead-in, "Married . . . With Children." In the case of Robert Townsend's "Townsend Television," a

cancellation announcement could come by next week from Fox.

On the other hand, new shows that have been given a full order in recent weeks, indicating that they will last through the season are: "Thea" (ABC), "Phenom" (ABC), "Grace Under Fire" (ABC), "Boy Meets World" (ABC), "NYPD Blue" (ABC) "Lois & Clark (ABC), "Dave's World" (CBS), "The Mommies" (NBC), "Cafe Americain (NBC), "The John Larroquette Show (NBC), "Frasier" (NBC), "Sinbad" (Fox), "Living Single" (Fox), "The Adventures of Brisco County, Jr." (Fox), "The X-Files" and "Bakersfield P.D." (Fox).

"SeaQuest DSV" started the season with a full 22-week commitment from NBC

But, of that group, the only new shows that can be called hits so far are: "Living Single" (Fox), "Dave's World" (CBS), "Frasier" (NBC), "NYPD Blue" (ABC), "Grace Under Fire" (ABC) and "Phenom" (ABC). And, with the exception of "NYPD Blue," the success of each is as much a function of scheduling as it is any innate appeal of the series.

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