Bumpy road ahead for webs

After several years of relative stability, the networks and Fox Broadcasting Co. end 1992 with some new faces at the tiller, although most anticipate little change in either their priorities or business approach during the coming year.

The networks face a serious array of challenges in 1993, as well as the prospect of eventual relief (if not necessarily an outright resolution) in regard to their rights to own the programs they air, through some sort of definitive action relating to the financial interest and syndication rules.

The network business had gone more than 18 months without a change atop one of the entertainment divisions before, in short order, Peter Chernin moved from Fox’s entertainment group to the studio’s feature wing–setting up the promotion of exec VP Sandy Grushow–and ABC’s Robert Iger matriculated to a high-level corporate job in New York that brought about Ted Harbert’s ascension to lead ABC Entertainment.

That both companies promoted from within suggests an interest in maintaining stability. It also suggests that ABC and Fox are currently enjoying solid results compared to last year and weren’t eager to rock the boat.

For ABC, in particular, having Iger as president of the ABC TV Network Group bodes well for the entertainment division, since Iger — having spent more than 3 1/2 years in the job — probably has a better understanding of how the West Coast mentality functions than any of his recent predecessors.

At the time Harbert was named, ABC said Iger would be more involved in daily entertainment matters than his predecessors.

Some managed to stay

The changes at Fox and ABC–where Chernin and Iger had been the top programming exex since February and March 1989, respectively–leaves CBS’ Jeff Sagansky as the elder statesman among his peers, celebrating his third anniversary at the Eye web. NBC’s Warren Littlefield has been president of the entertainment wing since July 1990.

Clearly, the most formidable challenges of 1993 await NBC, which continues to undergo the painful process of losing the pieces that kept it No. 1 from the 1985-’86 season through the ’90-’91 term.

The domino effect at NBC ranged from late night to daytime to prime time, with wrinkles like its disastrous TripleCast cable venture splashing even a successful event like the Summer Olympics with $ 100 million in red ink.

Also in ’92, the network went through a tough, much-publicized transition from Johnny Carson to Jay Leno that–with the potential departure of David Letterman–threatens to hamstring its late night franchise; was forced to return an hour of its daytime lineup to affiliates; saw “The Cosby Show” and “Night Court” breathe their last; and, faced with increased license fees for older-skewing properties, allowed “The Golden Girls,””Matlock” and “In the Heat of the Night” to leave to take up residence at other networks.

The big blow, however, came recently, when cast and crew, led by star Ted Danson, opted not to produce another season of “Cheers,” spelling the possible end of NBC’s Thursday franchise–a night the network dominated throughout its six-year ratings reign.

The Peacock web finished second for the 1991-92 season behind CBS — which was lifted to a wide margin by the World Series, Super Bowl and Winter Olympics. And NBC is now virtually certain to finish the ’92-’93 term deep in the ratings cellar. There’s small solace in that its key demographics, down sharply from last year, are relatively competitive with CBS, and with its top-rated series gone at season’s end NBC will be hard-pressed to stem that tide.

Network officials acknowledge how bleak the situation looks but are trying to put the best face on matters. NBC will try and improve its performance with high-profile movies and specials through the balance of the season and has some major series in the wings for next fall–among them “SeaQuest,” a 22-episode commitment to Steven Spielberg and Universal TV at a lofty $ 1 million per hour, proving NBC is willing to pay to play in the programming game.

ABC ‘Improvement’

Buoyed by the sophomore hit “Home Improvement,” ABC enters ’93 in relatively good shape. The web began its turnaround with a strong sweeps performance last May and carried that momentum into the fall, winning its first November sweeps in 14 years.

Still eluding ABC is a successful 10 p.m. drama to augment its sitcom blocks. The network has also targeted Saturday night as an area for improvement with a reality programming concept geared to the low HUT (homes using TV) levels available on that night, although many view the experiment as a means of losing inexpensively.

ABC has nonetheless established a new night on which it can build, with the performance of “Home Improvement” and “Coach” on Wednesday, perhaps the most significant ratings success story of ’92.

Yet even though ABC’s financial picture has generally been brighter than that of the other networks, CapCities/ABC recently confirmed a buyout offer to non-union employees designed to pare their ranks — a clear sign that the downturn in the advertising market, against a backdrop of rising program costs, has yet to substantially improve.

After an extremely strong 1991-92 term, Fox has held its own in adding a fifth regular night of programming but must establish some new hits as it pursues its goal of ultimately expanding to seven nights a week.

The road only figures to get tougher for Fox, which can no longer act as a largely ignored guerrilla network, since the Big Three webs are down with it in the bushes rooting around in search of younger viewers.

Fox will add a sixth regular night in January and is again talking about a regular presence with its on-again, off-again movie night, though few expect it to air on a weekly basis before late ’93 or some time in ’94. The other major new entry for Fox will be in late night, with a Chevy Chase talkshow for fall ‘ 93.

Fox has also reshaped the Saturday-morning field, helping drive NBC to finally add a Saturday “Today” edition and shift its focus to teens with live-action fare. In fact, the Fox Children’s Network has quietly expanded beyond its more celebrated prime time brethren, providing 19 hours a week of programming.

CBS’ Fridays panned out

Top-rated CBS hasn’t quite made good on its plan to turn Friday into a winning night, but it has improved its fortunes there (albeit with some loss of strength on Monday) and continues to pursue its goal of improving its performance Wednesday through Saturday to complement its impressive Sunday-through-Tuesday roster.

In a larger sense, CBS is still fighting the lonely fight of seeking to impress on advertisers the importance of reaching the widest possible audience, as opposed to the age 18-49 demographic. By that measure, the web trails ABC by a wide margin this season.

In the good news/bad news department, CBS will conclude its four-year Major League Baseball deal next fall–a major boondoggle financially that’s nonetheless helped pump up the web’s season average the past two years. Excluding the two weeks dominated by this year’s World Series, for example, CBS and ABC would be tied season to date, with an average 12.7 rating each, instead of the Eye web’s actual 13.2 to 12.5 advantage.

The current year also witnessed a noticeable increase in in-house production at the three networks that will likely continue in ’93, as well as additional news shows fronted by Connie Chung and Forrest Sawyer, respectively, from CBS and ABC. The Sawyer hour, ABC’s third, is expected in March, while there’s no air date yet for CBS’ fourth regular news show.

Despite its older skew, news has proven an extremely viable programming area, both as a ratings draw and a means of amortizing news division overhead. The trend toward news and reality, however, may endanger network dramas, which made a comeback on this fall’s program schedules but haven’t realized much of their ratings promise.

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