Studying lessons of the current prime time season

IN THE WORLD OF NETWORK TELEVISION, those who don’t study history aren’t necessarily doomed to failure, but since most things on TV fail, executives try to hedge their bets and study it anyway.

As a result, performance during the season in progress invariably has a way of informing the development choices networks make for the coming year. Since those decisions regarding pilots are mostly being made between now and March, it raises an interesting question: So what have we learned from this year for next year?

Based on a sampling of the Nielsens–and the more nebulous realm of quality, as opposed to commerciality–here are some of the lessons from fall 1992:

n Quirkiness isn’t much of a draw, as an end in itself. Shows like “Picket Fences” and “Going to Extremes” were quite obviously developed and sold in hopes of tapping into the same vein as “Northern Exposure,” a rather inexplicable hit in light of its modest summer roots.

Both new shows blend comedy and drama in a strange, remote setting, and both are reasonably entertaining. Yet neither has struck a terribly receptive chord with viewers, and in fact have clearly seen the audience go elsewhere after solid initial sampling.

n Shows featuring targeted groups, such as blacks or young adults, don’t necessarily inspire blacks or young adults to watch. The assumption that black-themed shows would generate ratings, for example–in part because of studies indicating African-Americans watch more TV on average than other ethnic groups–has an appalling disclaimer: The shows actually have to be good.

The same holds true for younger viewers, as the numerous ensemble dramas inspired by the success of “Beverly Hills, 90210” demonstrate, with two more, “Class of ’96” and “Key West,” still on the way.

NBC clearly went after the black audience on Saturday night with high-profile new comedies featuring Malcolm-Jamal Warner and Patti LaBelle, hoping to recapture the success the network enjoyed with shows like “227” and “Amen.” Two related observations can be made from this:

1) Saturday and Friday are now everybody’s problem. Low HUT (homes using TV) levels and high use of alternatives like cable and homevideo have put all four services on notice that the audience they’ve lost will not easily be recaptured. ABC is talking about a new direction for Saturday, and while they may not have the answer, something dramatic clearly has to be done.

2) Big-name sitcoms don’t necessarily work, unless they have the benefit of a good time period. It’s become so difficult to launch a new show that even talents like Delta Burke and Bob Newhart need a platform. Or, to demonstrate the value of time periods in the fewest possible words: “The Jackie Thomas Show.”

OLDER VIEWERS ARE THERE FOR THE ASKING. Fold them, spindle them, mutilate them, but as soon as shows like “Matlock,””Perry Mason,””In the Heat of the Night” and “Columbo” get back on the air, they find an audience. The challenge now is to find an advertiser willing to pay for them. Fixodent, anyone?

n The networks do seem to play favorites when it involves their own shows. Perhaps naively, we generally bought the notion that the networks wouldn’t stick with struggling in-house fare simply because they produce it, reasoning that whatever they could make on the back end would be lost in the diminution of their prime time performance.

This season, however, the webs have given more leeway to border-line in-house productions, even if they feel some minor incentive to hide behind the old “we feel the show has growth potential” line. NBC’s “Out All Night” and “Here and Now” and ABC’s “Camp Wilder” have all performed at levels that might have done in a non-network show, yet all three have had their initial 13-episode order extended.

Still, the door swings both ways, and studios out to prove their fin-syn case won’t find support for network self-interest claims in recent scheduling moves, as CBS and ABC did their in-house productions “Jack’s Place” and “Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman” no particular favors by scheduling them on Thursday and Saturday nights.

NEWS WORKS. Not just reality series, but particularly news, as evidenced by the growth of “PrimeTime Live” and generally respectable results for “Dateline NBC.” ABC and CBS both have another news hour on the way in ’93 (fronted by Forrest Sawyer and Connie Chung, respectively), and that’s two less hours for outside suppliers.

The networks have a strong incentive to stand by those hours and make them work. Recent history indicates that given enough time and enough behind-the-scenes talent, they will.

n Big miniseries attract viewers, particularly those with hot biographical topics. The five-hour productions “The Jacksons: An American Dream” and “Sinatra” looked regal and chairman-like during November, capturing huge audiences despite formidable competition. In both instances, they increased network viewing compared to its usual levels–bringing wayward viewers back into the flock, if only temporarily.

All three networks have been gradually moving in this direction and certainly have to feel better now about the projects they have in the works–assuming the subject matter (such as CBS’ “Scarlett”) is strong enough to attract an initial audience.

n Once is enough. At least, that’s true when it comes to TV movies, as the ludicrous parade of two and three competing productions based on the same story have yielded diminishing ratings returns. Hopefully, the nail in the coffin will be the three-way Amy Fisher debacle–proof, like the Fisher case itself, that three is most definitely a crowd.

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