Networks try again to improve ratings with 14 new series TV's Second Guess

March 05, 1995|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,Sun Television Critic

The main course of the 1994-1995 television season has been a flop, one of the worst flops in years. Only two new prime-time series, out of 32, have won enough viewers to be called hits -- NBC's "Friends" and "ER."

But the networks are hoping that viewers will want seconds anyway. Tonight, they start the rollout of 14 more new series in what has come to be known as television's second season.

On the surface, the menu of new series does not appear too promising. It mainly looks like older stars served up in warmed-over, old-time programming formulas: James Earl Jones as the grandpa in a family drama, Patty Duke as an ordained minister in another family drama, Valerie Harper heading up a secretarial pool, and James Brolin leading a rescue team. A doctor drama and a series about a lawyer are thrown in for good measure.

But if you look a bit deeper, there are some promising developments in the crop of spring shows: the first black family ++ drama in 14 years, a couple of series that deal with rarely explored working-class concerns, and a weekly adventure show about virtual reality from the producers of "China Beach."

There might even be something new about the return to all those old doctor-lawyer-rescue formulas. It's one of the ways television is responding to the conservative mood in the country, some industry executives say.

"I think we're trying to listen more to the audience and figure out what the public was telling us [in the November elections]," says NBC entertainment president Warren Littlefield. "There's a real need out there for the familiar, and we're all trying to respond to that."

That's looking at the issue of television as a cultural force -- producing shared images that both reflect society and shape social reality.

Business as usual

The second-season story is first and foremost a nuts-and-bolts business one, with CBS, Fox, NBC and ABC trying to plug holes in their schedules -- and test market some of their more expensive drama series before making decisions on whether the shows will make their prime-time schedules for fall. Think of the auto industry, only instead of market shares and new car designs, think Nielsen ratings and television pilots.

CBS and Fox, networks that are struggling, in effect are starting their third season this week. Both debuted a block of new shows in early January in hopes of recovering from a weak fall launch. But most of those January replacements -- like the remake of "Get Smart" on Fox and Delta Burke's "Women of the House" on CBS -- have already been axed or sent off on hiatus.

CBS is in third place overall, but has fallen into fourth behind Fox in the important 18-to-49-year-old demographic. The ratings are so bad that CBS is giving free time to many advertisers in an effort to make up for time sold last fall that did not deliver the promised audience, CBS group president Peter Lund told Broadcasting and Cable magazine last week.

The ratings debacle is largely the result of a decision to concentrate on aging baby boomer viewers for the last three seasons. That call was made by Howard Stringer, who resigned as group president two weeks ago to head a new programming and distribution alliance among Bell Atlantic, Pacific Telesis and Nynex.

"We have to reinvent ourselves. . . . We don't have enough programming for younger viewers," says CBS entertainment president Peter Tortorici, explaining why the network will bring on at least three more new series in addition to the three it debuted in January.

The three new CBS series are: "Under One Roof," a drama about a middle-class black family in Seattle that stars Jones, Joe Morton and Vanessa Bell Calloway; "The George Wendt Show," a sitcom that features Wendt (Norm of "Cheers") as one-half of a brother team that does a radio show about car repair; and "The Office," with Harper in a sitcom about secretaries and bosses.

Wendt's show premieres Wednesday, "The Office" on Saturday, and "Under One Roof" starts its six-week run March 14.

To make room for them, CBS has canceled "Hearts Afire" and "The Boys Are Back." The network has also placed "Rescue 911," "Love & War" and "Touched by an Angel" on hiatus. And, while it's not yet official, Burke's "Women of the House" is history, too -- as soon as CBS can burn off the three episodes of "Women" it has sitting on the shelf. "Hearts Afire" and "Women" are produced by Linda Bloodworth-Thomason, friend of the Clintons and a favorite of Stringer.

Fox is doing some major housecleaning, too, pulling the plug on "Models, Inc.," "M.A.N.T.I.S.," "House of Buggin' " and "Get Smart." The last episode of "Models" will air tomorrow night. The other three are already gone.

Premiering tonight at 7 on Fox will be "The Great Defender," starring Michael Rispoli as a personal-injury attorney with a blue-collar background who suddenly finds himself a partner in a blue-blood Boston law firm.

Critic returns

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