Tragedy disrupts fall TV season

Schedule: Continuing news coverage leads some networks to postpone premieres.

Terrorism Strikes America

September 14, 2001|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,SUN TELEVISION CRITIC

As network divisions yesterday continued all-day coverage in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks, their corporate bosses struggled to decide whether to delay a fall season that already has been seriously affected by lack of on-air promotion this week.

Most networks were trying to keep their options open, but some decisions have been made - decisions that show major differences in thinking among network executives, as well as an awareness of the importance of the industry's role in returning the nation to any sense of ordinary life.

Hit by both the loss of three days of advertising and the added costs of around-the-clock news coverage, the network revenue deficit for each of the big three - ABC, NBC and CBS - already is in the tens of millions of dollars. But much of that is really deferred and not actually lost, as some advertising revenue will be recouped when the entertainment programs now pre-empted eventually are run.

But this is an especially bad time of the television year for such disruption because the networks' greatest annual investment is in their new fall entertainment lineups. Twenty million dollars or more can be spent on one series alone, with another several million spent promoting it.

The promotional campaigns for the first wave of new fall shows are in shambles. Millions of dollars have been spent for magazine ads touting series that won't air on NBC next week, as those ads claim. The same can be said for the Emmy telecast on CBS.

NBC announced it would delay the debut of its fall lineup of new and returning series from Monday to Sept. 24.

"In light of the tragic events in our country, NBC has decided to postpone the premieres of the network's fall programs," the network said in a statement. "Further developments could alter this plan."

On the other hand, the WB will go ahead and launch three new series tonight, and new episodes of the returning series, Sabrina the Teenage Witch. Jordan Levin, entertainment president for the WB, said that his network wants "to offer those who want to return to a sense of normalcy the opportunity to watch TV together as a family."

The family-oriented lineup of sitcoms premiering tonight also would "allow younger viewers the opportunity to have something different than the catastrophic images that are repeating on multiple channels," Levin told the Hollywood Reporter, an industry trade publication.

It should be pointed out that the WB doesn't have a news operation, so the decision to go with entertainment programming is easier than it is for NBC, ABC or CBS, which not only have major news divisions but also seem to understand the civic and psychological role they play in times of national trauma.

Among the most conflicted networks was CBS, which earlier in the week had announced the postponement of the Emmy Awards show. As of yesterday, its plan was to postpone the debut of The Ellen Show, a new sitcom starring Ellen DeGeneres that had been scheduled to premiere Monday. (On Wednesday, CBS pre-empted the debut of Wolf Lake in favor of all-news coverage. ) But, the network still plans to begin its fall season Monday night with new episodes of such returning series as Everybody Loves Raymond.

ABC, Fox and UPN were sticking with previously announced fall plans as of yesterday, although Fox had pulled on-air promotions for its highly touted new drama, 24, whose pilot episode featured a terrorist blowing up a jetliner. The series is not scheduled to debut until Oct. 30, and a decision has not yet been made whether the scene will be altered or deleted.

It's likely that CBS will delete references to Osama bin Laden, the terrorist leader suspected of being behind Tuesday's attack, in the pilot episode of its new drama about the CIA, The Agency. The series is scheduled to premiere Thursday.

WB sitcoms

Parents wondering about the new Friday night WB sitcoms should know the network is trying to offer programs that it believes parents and children of elementary school age can watch together.

The best of the series is Maybe It's Me, with Reagan Dale Neis as Molly Stage, a bright and sensitive 15-year-old living in a very strange family. The pilot is genuinely funny; members of Molly's family find bizarre ways to humiliate her when she brings one of the most popular boys at school home for dinner. But Molly's love and acceptance of her lunatic clan is touching.

Country singer Reba McIntyre shows some acting talent in Reba. But the sitcom about a mom getting dumped by her philandering husband might feature humor that's a little too broad and adult for some.

As for Raising Dad, with Bob Saget as a single dad and high school teacher, I say bring back the Olson twins, his co-stars in Full House. They were clearly the ones with the talent.

Maybe It's Me airs at 8:30 on WNUV (Channel 54) followed by Reba and Raising Dad.

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