Well before the new season began, networks and studios alike knew that with 42 new primetime shows debuting this fall it would take a Herculean effort to cut through the clutter. With the season barely under way, it appears that Hercules is exercising with the channel changer.

It’s not that the networks weren’t willing to spend the money, or that promotion departments didn’t work overtime. They did. The surprise – in the form of dismal ratings for highly touted shows including CBS’ “Central Park West” and NBC’s “The Pursuit of Happiness” – is that the hype didn’t work.

Despite unprecedented promotional muscle, pegged by one source at $6 million in ad support, “CPW suffered ratings humiliation in its first two outings. Drubbed by Fox Broadcasting stunts – a two-hour “Beverly Hills, 90210” and a special “Melrose Place” airing – “CPW pulled audience levels far below the 15 share projected by ad buyers last spring and ranked fourth in its timeslot.

“CPW,” in fact, could serve as a case study on the frustrations involved in marketing new series.

Researchers note that their tracking surveys measure both awareness of shows and – perhaps most importantly – intent to watch. While “Central Park West” had one of the higher awareness levels among new shows (along with “Murder One,” “Brotherly Love” and “The Client”), it also featured relatively low intent to watch – not a complete surprise, sources say, due to the fact that soaps put off a substantial portion of viewers.

In addition, some industry observers think CBS may have erred by not delaying the show’s premiere when it learned that “CPW would face the second half of a two-hour “90210,” given that the series was scheduled specifically to cash in on a de facto lead-in from that audience. CBS expects to fare better this week, when “CPW faces the season premiere of Fox’s “Party of Five.”

Although easily the biggest ratings letdown of the highly touted new series, “CPW” wasn’t alone in its failure to rise to expectations. Even the heavily praised and promoted ABC Steven Bochco drama “Murder One,” while delivering a more-than-respectable audience, fell shy of what some industry execs predicted for a show that had the best buzz going in among the freshman class. Its Sept. 19 preem earned ratings no higher than a typical episode of “NYPD Blue,” which normally occupies the time period.

Among other early disappointments that networks and studio brass already are worried about fixing are NBC’s “Pursuit of Happiness,” which dropped sharply from its “Frasier”‘ lead-in, CBS’ “Bless This House” and ABC’s “The Monroes.”

“I think it’s indicative of a climate that has become incredibly competitive,” says Jerry Dominus, media director at J. Walter Thompson USA. “With all those sitcoms that are so much the same, all those half-hours of attractive young people talking about sex, the audience can’t sort out one show from another.”

Depending on your point of view, at this point TV execs are either in denial or are justified in cautioning against crowning winners or losers too soon.

“It’s a bit early to proclaim much of anything,” says Warren Littlefield, president of NBC Entertainment. “It takes a number of weeks for things to settle in and get some indication of where viewers are.”

“We don’t have any unrealistic expectations about how long it’s going to take to turn around the audience,” says George Schweitzer, exec VP of marketing at CBS, which had pinned its hopes on “CPW” to attract younger viewers to the web. “We’re in a rebuild (mode), and we’ve got to hang in there and see what happens.”

Few backups

Besides, CBS has few backups ready to replace faltering shows. But based on early episodes, Madison Avenue buyers aren’t too optimistic about prospects for “CPW.”

“I don’t hold out very much hope for it,” says Aaron Cohen, senior VP-director of national broadcast at the Media Edge, a division of the NW Ayer ad agency. “It’s amazing that people just ignored all the promotion; they decided not to watch it before it even came on.”

The weak showing, and utter confusion over seemingly endless “Friends” clones, doesn’t bode well for the crop of freshmen series. And that’ll make network marketers work harder to prop up their schedules, with significant shifts in game plans likely by Week Three.

Julie Friedlander, who heads network TV buying for Ogilvy & Mather, says the sameness is not unusual. “After ‘Cosby,’ we couldn’t get enough shows with cute kids, and they all failed.”

The glut of new shows also makes marketing more difficult. Series such as “Maybe This Time,” “Can’t Hurry Love” and “If Not for You” – which each premiered moderately well – all had some problem based on the fact that the audience may not have been able to differentiate the titles, meaning the surest bet for success in those instances remained a solid lead-in.

In contrast, some of the more promising new shows, ABC’s “Jeff Foxworthy Show” and “Murder One,” as well as Fox’s “Strange Luck” stand out from the urban-coffeehouse-singles formula du jour.

Though industry pundits gave “The Jeff Foxworthy Show” little chance of finding an audience, research did suggest both high awareness and intent to watch – reflecting perhaps a bias in New York and Los Angeles in handicapping the series. “A lot of us here underestimated what a guy like that can do,” says one studio exec.

Fox’s ‘Luck’

Sources say the fledgling UPN and WB services – and to some extent even Fox – have a harder time generating high awareness levels, though that hasn’t hurt the latter’s ability to launch shows. “Strange Luck,” for example, had low awareness but opened with solid numbers, while the new sci-fi series “Space: Above and Beyond” possesses only moderate awareness but is said to be near the top of the chart in terms of intent-to-view levels.

Meanwhile, shows that have got off to a disappointing start are in for some changes. In some cases, network execs knew they had problems before a single episode had aired. “CPW,” for example, tested poorly, and network brass were quick to order changes, including telling actor Tom Verica, who plays Mariel Hemingway’s husband, to shave off his passe grunge goatee.

“(CBS Entertainment president) Les Moonves wanted tons of changes,” says a “CPW” insider. “We were told to lose the contrived plot stuff, like the stalking ex-girlfriend, and up the Pamela Anderson factor – you know, more big hair and breasts.”

Some things never change.

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