Four nets serving up big slice of prime glib

The 1993-94 television season qualifies as unusual before a single overnight rating rolls in, with latenight and Capitol Hill politicking stealing headlines from the usual preseason speculation about “who’s on first?” in primetime.

In fact, “The Tonight Show” succession war that came to a head last January — with Jay Leno reinforced as NBC’s heir to the throne and David Letterman taking his bag of tricks (stupid pet or otherwise) over to CBS — has led to wholesale changes in the once-stolid daypart and screaming headlines in both consumer and trade press.

The result of all that talk will come to fruition over the next few weeks, when, in short order, “Late Show With David Letterman” (Aug. 30), “The Chevy Chase Show” (Sept. 7) and “Late Night With Conan O’Brien” (Sept. 13) all hit the scene on CBS, Fox Broadcasting Co. and NBC.

On the flip side, Garry Shandling has chosen to stay a fictional talkshow host only, spurning an offer from NBC and overture from CBS in order to keep producing “The Larry Sanders Show,” the talkshow satire that has the distinction of being the first cable show nominated for an Emmy as outstanding series — part of a 55-nomination wave by HBO, awakening the networks to the reality that viewership isn’t the only area where their share is eroding.

Much of the latenight fanfare will surround the Letterman-Leno battle, inflamed by the argument over “intellectual property rights” and what exactly Letterman can take from “Late Night” to his CBS show. The press attention has simply become fodder for more comedy, with Leno describing the situation as “millionaires arguing.” Even the low-key Letterman, meeting with visiting TV critics in July, said he felt the intense coverage of latenight has “gotten to be unbelievable” but that he isn’t worried about the competition at 11:30 p.m. “Of course, I’m full of gin,” he added, joking earlier that he’ll use his $ 14 -million-a-year salary to “buy a new audience” if the need arises.

Whatever ammunition Letterman takes with him, it won’t exactly be a fair fight at the outset. “The Tonight Show” enjoys virtually 100% live coverage across the U.S., compared to a little less than 70% anticipated for Letterman, who will be delayed a half-hour in the rest of the country.

Meanwhile, ABC has also increased its live carriage of “Nightline” from 62% to just over 70%, with the expectation in some quarters that the newsmagazine could end up as the real winner in latenight while the CBS and NBC shows carve up the talkshow audience.

Although latenight has been dominating the headlines, there’s also no shortage of stories to be played out during the coming season in primetime — starting strictly from an economic standpoint with must-carry/retransmission consent, which, in a worst-case scenario, could cause broadcast stations to lose appreciable carriage on cable systems. That battle is officially scheduled to come to a head in October.

On the more traditional programming front, 1993-94 may be remembered as the year newsmagazines took over, nearly forcing reality shows — never a favorite genre on Madison Avenue — off the schedule.

This fall there are 10 hours of news programming on the air if one includes “I Witness Video,” production of which has been transferred to KNBC-TV and NBC Entertainment; and “Front Page,” the maiden hour from Fox News. In addition to the three hours currently on each of the networks, two more — ABC’s “Turning Point” and CBS’ “Street Stories”– are waiting in the wings.

As a result, even with expansion by Fox Broadcasting Co. the number of hours available to entertainment series appears to be on the wane. “The year of the shrinking target,” Columbia Pictures TV prez Scott Siegler calls it, pondering what the landscape will look like for drama series in 1994-95, with the real threat that ABC’s fourth newsmagazine could go at 10 p.m. Tuesday — opposite NBC’s “Dateline”– if “NYPD Blue” falters.

“The big story is the proliferation of news and reality programming,” agrees Warner Bros. TV prexy Leslie Moonves, who says the creative community has every reason to be “very, very concerned” about the explosion of newsmagazines.

Indeed, the question remains where the saturation point is for primetime news , or if expansion by the news divisions can continue to squeeze other forms — particularly expensive ones like one-hour dramas — off of the networks. There’s even speculation that one of the webs may eventually strip news at 10 p.m. Monday through Friday.

Combined with increased output from network in-house production divisions, studios have decided not to sit idly by and watch the market for entertainment fare dry up.

Already, major suppliers like Paramount and Warner Bros. as well as industrious independents are looking more toward syndicated ad-hoc networks, making a dent with one-hour action fare like “Star Trek: Deep Space Nine” and “Kung Fu: The Legend Continues.”

Rumors persist, in fact, that Paramount or another studio will try to launch a “fifth network” in concert with the United/Chris-Craft station group, whose Los Angeles flagship, KCOP, already runs original primetime programming most nights thanks to the influx of syndicated hours.

Still, the networks haven’t given -up on dramas yet, and syndication remains a more dicey proposition. “In terms of the firstrun hours, we don’t know yet that the economic model works,” says Andy Kaplan, exec VP of the Sony Pictures Ent. TV Group, adding that television continues to be “an industry of cycles and bandwagons.”

Several major network hours have jumped aboard the action bandwagon this season, with the future of that form perhaps hanging in the balance.

Just one new hour, CBS’ “Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman,” enjoyed any significant ratings success last season.

Among the most important battles of ’93-94, in fact, will be 8 p.m. Sunday, a high HUT (homes using TV) level night where ABC’s “Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman” and NBC’s “seaQuest DSV” join Fox’s sitcom “Martin” in aggressively going after the younger audience not controlled by CBS’ household sleuth “Murder, She Wrote.”

Moonves calls the investment in big-ticket hours like “Lois & Clark” a”home-run mentality,” with higher overhead but also potentially larger rewards in termsof international sales as well as areas like merchandising and homevideo , which don’t generally apply to ensemble dramas.

“In success, it can really do a lot of business worldwide,” he says. “In failure, you’re out a lot of money on deficits.”

Handicappers generally give Warner Bros.’ venerable comic-book concept an edge over the Steven Spielberg underwater action show, though even ABC’s Ted Harbert isn’t counting out Fox’s “Martin,” which enjoyed a high-rated freshman season behind “The Simpsons.”

The 8 p.m. Sunday battle is doubly crucial since the ABC-NBC winner figures to have a better chance of making in-roads with its lead-out movie, with Harbert telling reporters ABC will be “a pretty tough network” if “Lois & Clark” does the hoped-for job.

A cloud hangs over the season, in fact, with the threat of congressional intervention regarding TV violence, a movement that should have broadcasters looking over their shoulders regarding sensational fact-based telefilms or series that deal in violent subject matter.

Looking to other behind-the-scenes concerns, the industry has continued to contract in terms of suppliers, including the consolidation of Lorimar TV and less prolific Time-Warner unit Warner Bros. TV into one massive entity with 15 shows on the three networks and Fox — as many as any three production entities combined except for Disney, which has nine shows on the air.

Relaxation of the fin-syn rules has created some strange bedfellows, with a studio like Columbia teaming up with a network on various projects — splitting risk and revenues.

“This is an economic climate where it makes sense to give up some upside to limit your downside,” Sony’s Kaplan says.

There also may be a changing of the guard in terms of TV’s top-rated entertainment show, with “Home Improvement” heading into its third season while ABC ponders the longterm future of “Roseanne”– which will come up for renewal as its two-year deal with the Alphabet network comes to an end.

Star Roseanne Arnold has signed with the show’s production outfit, Carsey-Werner Co., for two more seasons but is still smarting over ABC’s cancelation of “The Jackie Thomas Show” and has stated her desire to go elsewhere. CBS, meanwhile, is also wooing the Arnolds via a midseason sitcom, “Tom,” built around “Roseanne” exec producer Tom Arnold.

It’s noteworthy, meanwhile, that ABC will use “Improvement” as its launchpad for introducing three new series this season — a role traditionally played in recent years by “Roseanne,””Full House” and the since-departed “Who’s the Boss?”

Breaking down the season, CBS figures to get another half- to 0.6 of a rating point bump for the 30-week, September-to-April season by virtue of its February broadcast of the Winter Olympics.

CBS research has predicted the network will finish the coming season up 5% with a 13.9 rating, compared to a 12.4 for ABC and NBC’s 10.9 — the last two mirroring their averages from ’92-93.

As the projected household ratings champ, CBS has selectively tried to plug some holes in Monday, Wednesday and Saturday night while pepping up its Friday comedy lineup with some new blood. ABC’s biggest gambles are Saturday and Sunday while seeking to build an entire new night Wednesday, other than anchor “Home Improvement.”

Fox, the not-technically-a-fourth-network, has come of age with its seven nights of contiguous programming each week in addition to latenight and the Fox Children’s Network, now the top-rated Saturday-morning service.

The weblet faces some growing pains, however, and has moved two established series to Tuesday (“Roc,””America’s Most Wanted”) to try and make some headway there while putting ample pressure on “The Adventures of Brisco County, Jr.” to fortify Friday.

NBC, after a bruising season, will try to start over by leaving only Monday unchanged and will also have to cope with life after “Cheers.”

The Peacock network does get the Super Bowl for the second straight year, and after last year’s high-rated game, the big “Cheers” finale and Oprah Winfrey-Michael Jackson interview, all the webs are looking to create big one-shot events that can lure viewers back to the tube in mass numbers.

Other candidates for boffo ratings during ’93-94 include CBS’ epic miniseries “Return to Lonesome Dove” in November, while ABC has an eight-hour version of Stephen King’s “The Stand” lined up for May.

November will mark the 30th anniversary of John F. Kennedy’s death with two miniseries based on high-profile books — ABC’s “JFK: Reckless Youth,” and “The Last Brother: The Rise and Fall of Teddy Kennedy” on NBC — as well as “The Waltons Thanksgiving” reunion, which will be set in the ’60s and touch upon the assassination.

All the networks are still wrestling with the problems of how to generate sampling of series in an expanded television environment, particularly with roughly three dozen new shows premiering in a 10-week period.

Excluding NBC’s already-launched newsmagazine, “Now With Tom Brokaw and Katie Couric,” while counting its “Mystery Movie,” ABC and NBC will offer 11 and 10 new shows, respectively, while CBS has eight new shows to deal with and minimal or no change on Monday, Tuesday, Saturday and Sunday nights.

As another historic footnote to the new season, thanks to its corporate consolidation, Warner Bros. TV finds itself in the unprecedented position of having a show simultaneously on all four services from 8-8:30 p.m. Friday: “Against the Grain” (NBC), “The Adventures of Brisco County, Jr.” (Fox), “Family Matters” (still flying the Lorimar banner, for ABC) and “It Had to be You” (CBS).

“It’s never happened before, and hopefully it’ll never happen again,” Moonves says. “I feel like a guy who has gone to the track and bet on every horse in the race.”

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