It’s fall again. That time when the summer heat fades and the four broadcast TV networks take their best shot at ratings dominance with a bounty of new shows.
This 1993-94 season, 49% of the broadcast TV schedule is changing, up from 42 % a year ago.
Changes are the result of last year’s underperforming crop of new programs and the departure of several long-running shows, such as NBC’s “Cheers.” This go-round, there are 38 new programs on the schedule, at least one new offering appearing nightly.
As in past reports on upcoming fall TV seasons, Daily Variety asked New York-based advertising executives and media buyers for their take on the key shows and potential breakthrough stars in the new season’s comedy/drama line-up. Reality programming and newsmagazines are not part of the mix.
Ad execs and media buyers contacted by Daily Variety include Steve Sternberg, senior VP of broadcast research at Bozell Inc.; Paul Schulman, president of the Paul Schulman Co.; David Marans, senior VP of media research at J. Walter Thompson, and Betsy Frank, senior VP at Saatchi & Saatchi Advertising.
Like last year, included is Saatchi & Saatchi’s numerical rating system — an evaluation of new shows from long shot to hit on a 1-to-10 scale — and six short profiles of potential breakout stars of the ’93-94 TV season.
This year’s top pick as projected breakout star is Brett Butler, star of ABC’s “Grace Under Fire.” The 35-year-old stand-up comedienne has no prior acting experience, but Daily Variety’s experts universally praised her. They also liked the blue-collar comedy about a newly divorced mother of three for its writing and cushy Wednesday, 9:30 p.m., slot, following top-rated “Home Improvement.” But remember, this is entertainment, where often things are not as they appear to be. Two years ago, ad execs and media buyers contacted by Daily Variety tapped Tim Allen as the new season’s talent standout. Good choice.
Last year’s top pick was Roger Kabler of NBC’s “Rhythm and Blues.” The pilot was sure-fire. He was hailed as the “next Robin Williams.” But the show didn’t last the season.
JWT’s Marans pointed out that with so many viewing options, there are very few mega-hits on TV anymore. And these days, it’s not uncommon for a show to take more than one season to break out as a bonafide hit, as “Seinfeld” did this past season.
So what’s the group’s overall impression about the fall network TV fare? All agree that the four networks have mostly come up with safe programming choices, shows with a mission of maintaining audiences, rather than breaking new ground. Most of them are advertiser-friendly shows, with one big exception, Steven Bochco’s much-publicized cop drama, the gritty “NYPD Blue.”
Saatchi & Saatchi’s Frank attributed the conservatism to last season’s rough ride. Last year at this time the webs were coming off a season of stability and even growth. This time only ABC posted gains, and those gains were slim.
Frank believes thisyear’s schedule reflects the networks’ understanding that they must return to what they do best — delivering broad-based entertainment.
Jamming the 1993-94 season are comedies. Lots of comedies. Particularly comedies with single parents and kids. And in many cases the kids are of the variety that exist only on TV — children with the knack of delivering wisecracks that sound like the observations of jaded 45-year-olds.
This season there are a number of new faces that seem to have star potential. But as in past seasons, past TV glories are strong credentials for a role in the 1993-94 season. At least 12 stars in new shows put in time in other hit series.
“Night Court” alumnus Harry Anderson is starring in CBS’ “Dave’s World,” a comedy based on the writings of syndicated columnist Dave Barry. “Cheers” alumnus Kelsey Grammer gets top billing in a spin-off about pompous shrink Frasier Crane in NBC’s “Frasier” on Thursdays at 9:30 p.m.
Some stars of the big screen, such as Roy Scheider and Academy Award winner Faye Dunaway, are making a run at TV stardom this season, in NBC’s “seaQuest” and CBS’ “It Had to Be You,” respectively. Stars are assets, say the experts, but name recognition isn’t everything.
“There’s always an advantage if a program has a well-known name,” says Marans. “However, there’s nothing that’s as disappointing as a star in an unsuitable vehicle.” And, after all, he says, it’s writing that makes a show, not celebrities.
Sternberg concurs: “We’ve seen this time and time again. Stars don’t make shows, shows make stars.” The following are highlights of the observations of the experts contacted by Daily Variety:
It’s unanimous. “Grace Under Fire” is the No. 1 pick for top hit status among our experts, with three out of our four predicting it will be the top ratings draw among the season’s new shows. Its star, acting novice Brett Butler, is a large part of the reason, they say. Saatchi & Saatchi gives it a rare 9 ranking.
First, the show has the huge advantage of coming on at 9:30 p.m. on Wednesday , following one of the most popular comedies on TV, “Home Improvement.” Lead-ins aren’t as important as they were when audiences weren’t so fragmented, but they still count. And here it will work in “Grace’s” favor.
When evaluating pilots, Bozell’s Sternberg looks for a good supporting cast. He asks if the show presents a solid situation writers can sustain. “Grace” delivers on both counts, he says. In addition, he likes Butler, despite her TV inexperience. “Butler has the type of personality that can carry the show,” he says.
The production company behind “Grace”– Carsey-Werner Co., producers of “Roseanne” and “The Cosby Show”– also boosts confidence. Is “Grace” the next “Roseanne”? “Could be,” says Schulman. “Of all the new shows, this is the one.”
Also a favorite choice as hit-bound is “Boy Meets World,” scheduled to air Fridays at 8:30 p.m. This domestic sitcom will also be competing in the only half-hour in all of primetime in which there are all new shows.
The star of “Boy Meets World” is 13-year-old Ben Savage, who portrays 11 -year-old Cory Matthews, a boy whose life is changing since his older brother discovered girls. He also deals with his next door neighbor, who happens to be his persnickety teacher, portrayed by William Daniels.
Saatchi & Saatchi’s Frank thinks Savage — the younger brother of “The Wonder Years” star Fred Savage — has charisma and believes the program will get a boost from its lead-in, “Family Matters.”
“He’s (Savage) adorable,” says Frank. “It’s the right network on the right night.” Saatchi & Saatchi’s ranking is an 8.
“NYPD Blue” probably has higher awareness levels than any other program on the new schedule.
Emmy-winning producer Steven Bochco’s quest to push the outside of the envelope with scenes of R-rated sex, foul language and crotch grabbing has put the show in the headlines and triggered protests from conservative pressure groups and ABC affiliates. Yielding to pressure, Bochco said he’d trim 15 seconds from a lovemaking scene in the first episode.
Sternberg thinks the publicity may help the show, but cautioned that curiosity will only pull in audiences once. Then the show must stand on its own merits.
Our experts like “Blue,” but many are on the fence about its prospects because of its content. The ensemble cast is solid, particularly Dennis Franz, who portrays the hard-bitten alcoholic cop Andy Sipowicz, and Dennis Caruso as his partner, John Kelly. Saatchi & Saatchi’s hit-predicting rating is a 6.
“‘Blue” is a good, commercial cop show that can work even if it’s toned down, ” says Sternberg. But the ratings it delivers will determine how the world views “Blue”: “If it’s a hit, it will be hailed as “‘innovative”‘ and “ground-breaking ,” he said.”If it dies, violent and trashy.”
“Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman,” Sundays at 8 p.m., brings the Man of Steel back to the small screen. Our experts found the leads — Dean Cain and Teri Hatcher — attractive and believe this romantic adventure could draw respectable numbers.
Schulman believes “Murder, She Wrote” will dominate the time period, but since the CBS hit attracts older (50-plus) viewers, the real battle will take place between “Lois & Clark” and its other competitors, NBC’s “seaQuest DSV” and Fox’s “Martin.” Those three shows will be vying for the coveted 18-to-49 -year-olds. “They (Cain and Hatcher) are delightful together, but it’s a tough call,” says Marans.
Saatchi & Saatchi gives it a 6.
“Dave’s World,” Mondays at 8:30 p.m., brings the wit of Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist Dave Barry to the TV screen. Three of our four experts give it a good endorsement, although none were off-the-charts in their praise. Saatchi & Saatchi’s ranking is 8.
“The Nanny,” Wednesdays at 8:30 p.m., is a domestic comedy about a good-hearted but brash door-to-door cosmetics saleswoman from Queens who takes a job as a nanny with a swank family. Culture clash, anyone?
Schulman sees it as a marginal hit, but feels it needs a timeslot change to prosper. It follows “The Trouble with Larry” and competes in the same time frame as NBC’s “Unsolved Mysteries” and Fox’s “Beverly Hills 90210.”
Star Fran Drescher is a real question mark, according to our panel. “You either love her or hate her,” says Frank. The popular wisdom is she’s “too New York City” to play in Peoria.Saatchi & Saatchi ranks “The Nanny” as a 6.
Actor Kelsey Grammer is reprising his role as Dr. Frasier Crane in a half-hour comedy spin-off (“Frasier”) of “Cheers.” It’s also from the producing team that brought the long-running series, which ended its run with so much fanfare last season. This time, newly-divorced Frasier has relocated to Seattle to start a new life. Things get dicey when his opinionated father moves in. He must also deal with a mouthy British housekeeper. Schulman and Sternberg think “Frasier” will be a hit because of its placement behind “Seinfeld.” But neither was bowled over by the pilot.
“Frasier’ will either rise to the occasion or it won’t,” says JWT’s Marans. “It’s got a wonderful time slot. The question is, can the Frasier character hold the audience?”
Saatchi & Saatchi is more positive. The company gives it a 9 in its ranking. And Frank predicts it will be the highest-rated show in its time period. “This is a well-written show,” she insists.
“The Sinbad Show” will have a powerful lead-in in the form of “The Simpsons,” and that, plus the high-energy personality of its star, gives “The Sinbad Show” hit potential, according to our panel. Sinbad has a loyal following and he should attract solid viewership among the 12-to-34 year-old urban audience.
The 8:30 p.m. Thursday half-hour comedy featuring the stand-up and former regular of “A Different World,” suspended production in recent weeks after its backers decided the show needed re-tooling. Its premiere was pushed back from Aug. 26 until Sept. 16 as a result.
Still, based on the impression our Madison Avenue mavens got from a demonstration tape, they’re high on “The Sinbad Show.””He’s a bonafide star,” said Schulman. Saatchi & Saatchi’s ranking is 7. Frank describes Sinbad as, “the bachelor father of the nineties.”
The concept of “Adventure of Brisco County, Jr.,” Friday nights at 8 p.m., is different enough and its star, Bruce Campbell, has enough charisma that this western action-adventure series has a good shot at finding a following. Frank thinks “Brisco” is a great show, but she’s skeptical it will hold its own against ABC’s comedies and CBS’ “It Had to Be You.” Saatchi & Saatchi views its hit prospects as a 4.