Prime examples For laughs and drama, the TV networks are way behind schedule. But we make, and mark, the best oif a bad season.

December 01, 1997|By DAVID ZURAWIK | DAVID ZURAWIK,SUN TELEVISION CRITIC

How bad is the new network season?

"It's so bad that we can't even bring ourselves to officially cancel Tony Danza's show and put it out of its misery," an NBC executive joked last week about a series that was sent on hiatus after three episodes played to horrible ratings and vicious reviews.

"Given the level of the other new stuff this fall, there might yet be hope -- even for Tony."

This is the time of the year when reality starts to set in for Hollywood producers and network programmers. With November sweeps ending last week, they are afforded their first relatively clear look across the prime-time landscape, and they don't like much of what they are seeing.

The networks have lost more than 2.5 million viewers compared with last year at this time, and most of the new series have failed to deliver the audiences that ABC, NBC, CBS and Fox promised advertisers, who paid record prices for up-front buys.

As was predicted here in September, hits are few, and also-rans are all over the place. A consensus is crystallizing into conventional wisdom that the new season is a bust.

But wait a minute. That's all numbers -- Nielsen ratings and advertising dollars -- television as business. What about television as culture -- the way it's representing our world and the sense we are making of those representations?

In this regard, I say we are having a pretty good year. In fact, to paraphrase the Chinese, we are living in highly interesting prime times, and we shouldn't let conventional wisdom blind us to the pleasure and meaning that millions of us find nightly in front of the tube with priests, angels, lesbians, single dads, families without parents, mismatched lovers, hippie parents, young lawyers and old friends.

You already know what's wrong with the new season. Here are some of the positive trends, promising new shows, revitalized series and performers who are delivering the goods -- along with just enough Nielsen algebra to get a fix on the future of favorites such as "Homicide: Life on the Street":

Priests and angels

The boom in prime-time religion isn't new this season. When "Touched By An Angel" became the first overtly religious program to crack the Nielsen Top 10 last November, you didn't need the Psychic Friends Network to know religion was going to be cloned all over the schedule this year.

While most of the religious matter in a series like Dan Aykroyd's "Soul Man," for example, isn't exactly the stuff of rigorous moral discourse, television is validating and celebrating the spiritual nightly with shows like "Promised Land" and "Touched By An Angel."

Furthermore, the new ABC series "Nothing Sacred," about an inner-city priest, has led to serious debate among Catholics about their church.

The conservative Catholic League attacked the series and launched an advertiser boycott in July, before the first episode even aired. But, once they saw the series, more liberal voices in the church -- like the Washington-based Catholics for a Free Choice -- responded with their own campaigns in support of the show. Last week, Advertising Age magazine carried a full-page ad of support that was signed by prominent Catholic clergy.

"Nothing Sacred" is one of the lowest-rated series in all of prime time. In its most recent outing two weeks ago, it ranked 90th out of 118 shows. But it still has an audience of 6.9 million viewers and has managed to spark informed debate on matters ranging from abortion to the social conscience of clergy, while reminding all of us that the Catholic Church is not monolithic.

Despite the low ratings, struggling ABC has picked up the series for the rest of the season, which means the Catholic League will have Father Ray (Kevin Anderson) to kick around at least until May. The debate will continue, and those of us who pay attention will be a little smarter about the Catholic Church today.

'Ellen' is special

Another important debate is the one surrounding ABC's "Ellen."

If you saw the inspired episode with Emma Thompson two weeks ago, you know the questions from last year as to what Ellen DeGeneres could possibly do with the show once she came out as a lesbian have been put to rest. She has bad weeks, like the episode in October that featured her character, Ellen Morgan, as a Civil War re-enactor. But when it works, as it did with Thompson, "Ellen" is traveling in "I Love Lucy" country.

DeGeneres and ABC have been at loggerheads over a warning ABC puts on most "Ellen" episodes about the sexual content -- a warning that other ABC series featuring far more explicit heterosexual subject matter (like Drew Carey stripping off his clothes) aren't tagged with.

Last week, Ellen Morgan contemplated sleeping with a woman for the first time. Rest assured, the bedroom scene is going to happen before the season ends, and sexual orientation is going to be on the front burner of public discussion as a result.

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