The real-life O.J. Simpson murder trial soap opera could lead to the death of a spate of struggling freshman syndicated series.

February was a make-or-break sweeps book for the multitude of new firstrun shows, all of which had one foot in the grave since their agonizing births last fall.

But they had little chance of getting sampled with cable ratings skyrocketing for networks such as CNN, Court TV and E! Entertainment TV, which offered gavel-to-gavel coverage of the proceedings.

N.Y. cable rates skyrocket

In New York, cable ratings jumped 85% from January to February. Chicago leaped 86%, Philadelphia 103%. But in Los Angeles, where five of the seven broadcast stations offered fairly regular Simpson coverage, there was no change.

For all the metered markets, cable ratings were up 25% in rating and 29% in share to a 13.2 rating/44 share.

Additionally, the networks preempted many daytime and early fringe shows for dramatic court testimony. And with most stations in the nation’s second-largest market of L.A. blowing out large chunks of programming, it severely hampered the ratings performance of some shows (including powerhouses such as “Oprah Winfrey”) while artificially inflating others.

The first casualty of the sweeps, Columbia TriStar TV Distribution’s sketch comedy series “The Newz,” was ironically the highest-rated new latenight strip of the season with numbers in the unacceptable mid-1 range (see related story on TV Back Page).

The list of firstrun shows in trouble is a lengthy one: Group W’s “Jones & Jury,” Buena Vista TV’s “Judge For Yourself,” MCA TV’s “Last Call,” Group W’s “Marilu,” Multimedia’s “Susan Powter,” Paramount’s “Jon Stewart” and Multimedia’s “Dennis Prager.”

“The body is dead,” proclaims Bill Carroll, VP-director of programming for Katz TV. “We know there will be a wake and a funeral.”

Continuing with that fatalistic theme, Jack Fentress, VP-director of programming for Petry National Television, quips, “They’re all going to be buried in Potter’s Field.”

Even this season’s top-rated new firstrun freshman series, Warner Bros.’ “Extra: The Entertainment Magazine,” finished the sweeps one full rating point under its lead-in and year-ago time period average in the Nielsen metered markets.

And the best-performing new talkshow of the season, Twentieth TV’s “Gordon Elliott,” was earning a 2.4 rating/8 share – 2 shares under its lead-in and 1 share off a year ago. That figure would have been unacceptable even a year ago, but today it is considered a success story.

Syndicators are in a “procrastination mode,” waiting for the final February sweeps demographic numbers before they are forced to pull the plug – or risk having the stations do it for them so they can make room for new fall shows, the reps say.

The new first run series weren’t the only shows to suffer in the household results because of Simpson.

News knocked

The heavy trial coverage in L.A. hurt the high revenue-generating early evening newscasts on the three network-owned stations.

O.J. also made his presence felt in the local chatter race. KCOP’s 5 p.m. run of “Ricki Lake” became the first chatshow to ever tie KABC’s 3 p.m. edition of “Oprah Winfrey,” which went up directly against the trial.

Overall, L.A. viewing levels jumped 10% over February ’94 between 9 a.m. and 5 p.m. weekdays because of the trial.

Aside from O.J., the other big sweeps story belonged to Fox. Seven of its New World Communications affiliates – in Atlanta, Cleveland, Detroit, Kansas City, Milwaukee, Phoenix and Tampa – posted an average increase of 14% (8.7 vs. 7.6) in primetime house ratings in February over a year ago.

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