Network TV 101

Webs learn from season's successes, failures

Enough already with the almost-daily treatises on “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire.”

It’s become an exhaustively examined phenom: TV’s viewing masses flocking to the Church of “Millionaire” and worshipping with Father Regis, quickly turning it into network TV’s salvation. The quizshow’s effect will be even more obvious by midseason, when the Big 4 webs start to look more like the Game Show Network.

But the success of “Millionaire” wasn’t the only event that taught the networks a lesson or two this fall. So get out your notebooks. Here are a few of the other realities the networks have absorbed in the closing months of 1999:

1. Lights … camera … no “Action”: Students of television will study the heavily hyped birth, painfully short life and premature death of Fox’s “Action” for years to come.

“Action” seemed to have a good shot at success before its debut. The show snagged a TV Guide cover before it even premiered and landed on just about every critic’s list of new series faves.

More important, Fox threw most of its fall campaign cash at “Action,” aggressively basing its entire launch around the Joel Silver/Chris Thompson series. And controversy surrounding the show’s spicy content gave it an avalanche of free added publicity.

But the show had too many strikes against it ever to succeed.

Start with its Thursday timeslot, against the NBC juggernaut. Also hurting its chances: the show’s unconventional single-camera format. Its unlikable lead character. Its clubby inside look at Hollywood. Fox’s general decline this fall.

“I would rather fail with a show like ‘Action’ than something that is excruciatingly conventional,” said Fox Television Entertainment chairman Sandy Grushow.

Even rival execs give Fox credit for at least trying an unconventional series.

“In many respects I think Fox should be applauded for having the guts to put ‘Action’ on,” said ABC Entertainment Television co-chairman Lloyd Braun.

“Action” could have been an elixir for the sickly state of half-hour comedies. But with that show’s death and the similarly original “Sports Night” still in trouble, viewers may be voting against sitcoms that steer too far from the norm.

2. TV: Not just for teenage girls anymore: The young-adult, WB-style drama was supposed to be this fall’s hot trend. But most of that youth-targeted fare has been pulled or continues to perform without distinction.

Not so loud

Instead, it has been the quieter, older-skewing dramas that have led the way this fall.

“This was the year of traditional, solid storytelling,” said CBS Television CEO Leslie Moonves. “People want more relatability in their dramas.”

The surprise success of NBC’s “Providence” last midseason wasn’t just a fluke. Viewers sampled NBC’s “The West Wing,” CBS’ “Family Law” and ABC’s “Once and Again” in respectable numbers.

But the real story was CBS’ “Judging Amy,” top candidate for surprise hit of the fall honors.

“Since we were the Cinderella project, the last pilot ordered, no one was looking at us the be the hit,” said “Judging Amy” executive producer Barbara Hall.

3. Bad news for TV’s newsmags: At the height of the newsmagazine boom two seasons ago, “60 Minutes” creator Don Hewitt argued that the overabundance of primetime newshours was merely a byproduct of weak development on the part of the networks’ entertainment divisions. When programmers on the West Coast started coming up with hits again, he predicted, the number of hours devoted to newsmags would start dropping again.

Hewitt was right.

The solid performance of this season’s frosh crop of dramas, along with the current gameshow craze, is starting to put the squeeze on newsmags. Nets are eyeing timeslots now occupied by newsies as potential homes for the likes of “Twenty-One Greedy People Who Want to Be a Millionaire.”

Indeed, the downsizing has already started. ABC next month will shrink “20/20” from four nights per week down to three; NBC will temporarily bump two nights of “Dateline” to make room for gamer “Twenty One.”

’60 II’ holds on

Solid ratings have always been the best defense for newsmag producers trying to hold on to their timeslots. But with the exception of CBS’ “60 Minutes II,” ratings for almost all of the newsmags are down so far this season.

Despite the gloomy short-term outlook for magazine shows, the genre is far from dead. Newsmags, particularly NBC’s “Dateline,” have proven to be very effective lifelines for webs, plugging countless holes in troubled skeds.

4. Even David E. Kelley gets the blues: The season started on a definite high note for the prolific producer: His hourlong hits “Ally McBeal” and “The Practice” walked away with Emmy statuettes for best comedy and drama, respectively.

A decision by Kelley to once again take an active interest in “Chicago Hope,” the hospital drama he created for CBS, paid off with an early ratings resurgence for the skein. And with the premieres of “Snoops” on ABC and a half-hour version of “Ally McBeal” on Fox, Kelley had a whopping five series on the air.

The early promise of fall soon turned into the winter of Kelley’s discontent, however.

The much-hyped “Snoops” was savaged by critics, who as a group tend to love virtually anything Kelley does. Ratings for the private dick skein were mediocre at best, and co-star Paula Marshall quickly requested (and was granted) an early exit from the show. By the end of the year, “Snoops” was canceled.

Equally disastrous was “Ally,” which most industry insiders labeled a cynical attempt by Kelley to make even more money by shaping a made-for-syndication sitcom out of his hourlong dramedy hit.

No on Franken-skein

In the end, viewers decided they like their “Ally” with its “McBeal” intact: The half-hour Franken-skein is expected to disappear within the next few weeks.

Still, it’s probably a mistake to consider these setbacks anything more than a speed bump for Kelley: His about-to-be-inked new deal with 20th Century Fox TV guarantees he’ll be making primetime series — and serious coin — for years to come.

5. Thursday night smackdown: You can’t fight NBC’s Thursday night — unless you have something that attracts an absolutely different crowd.

This was supposed to be the year that NBC’s Thursday dominance was finally threatened, as ABC and Fox announced with much bravado that they would challenge the Peacock head-on.

Must-see holds on

But neither network even got out of the starting gate. ABC shoved the half-hour sitcom “Then Came You” to midseason and canceled the youth drama “Wasteland” after just a few episodes.

Fox, meanwhile, shelved “Manchester Prep” before that show ever made it to air, bumped “Family Guy” to midseason and valiantly failed to save “Action.”

CBS mines the Viagra crowd with “Diagnosis Murder,” while WB has the Clearasil set wrapped up with “Charmed.” But before “Millionaire” came on and gave ABC a glimmer of hope on Thursday, the real freshman threat to NBC came from, of all places, UPN, with “WWF Smackdown!”

‘Smackdown’ turnaround

Thanks to “Smackdown,” UPN — the weblet the industry all but declared stone cold last year — is up a whopping 35% this season in household Nielsen ratings, by far the biggest spike of any broadcast web.

With the proposed CBS/Viacom merger threatening its survival and the network still struggling in other areas, UPN isn’t in the clear just yet.

But “Smackdown’s” strong performance gave UPN at least one reason to cheer.

“The only real breakout hits for my money — what got people talking this fall,” said Fox Entertainment president Doug Herzog, “were wrestling and ‘Millionaire.’ “

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