Channel-surfing the new season on network TV Snapshots: Viewing is down, advertising's up. Monday is a slugfest. Friday has magical powers. Tune in for more.

September 14, 1997|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,SUN TELEVISION CRITIC

On-screen, the big story of the new network season is the dominance of hourlong dramas -- many from top Hollywood producers like Steven Bochco and David E. Kelley.

But there's also plenty of drama off-screen as the four major and two mini networks roll out their new fall schedules.

Here's the new season at a glance -- on-screen and off:

* All the new-season glitter and hype in the world can't hide the fact that the audience share for the four major networks declined for the third consecutive year in 1996. Conversely, the audience for basic cable grew for the third year in a row.

ABC, NBC, CBS and Fox saw their audience share fall to 62 percent last year, down from 72 percent in 1993. Meanwhile, the share for basic cable was at 32 percent last year, up from 22 percent in 1993.

* Still, there's another fact that has everyone on Network Row, even programming-poor ABC, smiling: Despite the ratings decline, preseason advertising sales are at an all-time high of $6.1 billion, an increase of 7 percent over last year.

Furthermore, the networks have been able to jack up their prime-time rates by as much as 11 percent and get away with it.

The reason that they can lose audience and still charge higher rates is that network television -- with its audiences of 20 million to 30 million homes for a successful prime-time show -- is still the most effective way to reach a mass audience coast-to-coast with just one buy.

* As for the audience battle among the networks themselves, NBC will again be the winner, despite an uninspired lineup of new series.

NBC's "Veronica's Closet," with Kirstie Alley as a former model who now runs a mail-order lingerie business, is picked as the one sure-fire hit of the new season by the ad agency buyers, but that is more a matter of scheduling than content. It airs Thursdays at 9: 30 p.m. between "Seinfeld" and "ER."

The most improved network lineup is that of CBS, which should finish second to NBC but ahead of ABC and Fox. Based on the pilots, Bochco's "Brooklyn South," "Michael Hayes" (starring David Caruso) and "The Gregory Hines Show" are the three best new series of the year, and all are on CBS.

The loser of losers this season is ABC. Jamie Tarses, the embattled president of ABC Entertainment, has assembled one of the worst lineups in the history of network television.

* The night of the toughest fight among the networks is Monday, when NBC goes with its "Women Who Work" lineup vs. men who watch "Monday Night Football" on ABC.

The women in "Suddenly Susan," "Fired Up," "Caroline in the City" and "The Naked Truth" all happen to work in the media, which seems to be the only place prime-time women work these days and nights, and all are some kind of imitation of Mary Tyler Moore's Mary Richards.

CBS, meanwhile, counters with about $3 million of original programming each Monday, featuring some of its most expensive stars and producers: Bill Cosby, Cybill Shepherd, Judd Hirsch, Bob Newhart and Bochco's "Brooklyn South."

And to further up the ante, Fox fights back with "Melrose Place" and Kelley's "Ally McBeal," which both feature more and younger women who work, such as Amanda Woodward (Heather Locklear).

Finally, the youngest and possibly hardest-working woman on Monday nights is Buffy of "Buffy, the Vampire Slayer," WB's biggest series, which airs at 9.

* The continued growth of such newsmagazines as "PrimeTime Live" is one of the season's more solid mini-trends. Despite a New York Times article in 1994 declaring the death of newsmagazines, they continue to spawn and clone like a killer virus.

A second version of "20/20" on ABC will fight CBS' "48 Hours" for the crumbs left over from "ER" at 10 Thursday nights. CBS asks "Public Eye With Bryant Gumbel" to compete from 9 to 10 Wednesday nights against "Drew Carey" and "Ellen" on ABC, "3rd Rock" on NBC, "Party of Five" on Fox and "Star Trek: Voyager" on UPN.

* There's magic in the air on Fridays, but if you are over 16 years of age, you probably won't feel it.

CBS will start the night this fall with "Family Matters," which it stole from ABC's TGIF lineup, and ABC will counter with "Sabrina, Teenage Witch." Fox offers "The Visitor," starring Chris Corbett as a World War II pilot who returns to Earth after being abducted by aliens in the 1940s.

Fridays are all about magical powers and transformation this year.

"The Visitor" has the power to heal physical injuries. CBS' 8: 30 entry, "Meego," stars Bronson Pinchot as an alien who becomes the nanny to three kids and uses his powers to keep the household running smoothly.

ABC, meanwhile, adds two new magic-coms in the wake of the success of "Sabrina." "You Wish" is about a single mom who finds a wacko genie rolled up in an Oriental rug that she bought. "Teen Angel" is about a 15-year-old who dies and comes back to watch over his best friend.

The reason for all this magic is not a universal longing for a return to the greatness that was "Bewitched," but rather the appeal of ** transformation for kid and teen viewers.

Pub Date: 9/14/97

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