At least five returning primetime series will move from one network to another this fall. If history repeats itself, the transitions could be rather rocky.
Over the past 33 years, more than 20 primetime TV shows have switched networks during the course of their on-air lives. Not one has drastically improved its fortunes after moving, and so far, no network has been able to turn a rival’s lemon into lemonade.
“Most of the time this happens, it doesn’t work,” admitted CBS Television prexy Leslie Moonves.
The one show that might at first glance appear to be an exception is NBC’s “The Naked Truth,” which jumped 47% in household ratings and 70% in adults 18-49 after it moved from ABC to NBC this past season. But in reality, ratings for “The Naked Truth” were artificially inflated by TV’s most-coveted timeslot between “Seinfeld” and “ER.”
A better indication of its performance last season is lead-in retention, and “The Naked Truth” lost nearly 20% of its lead-in on NBC, the same loss that led ABC to cancel the show. “The Naked Truth” is being retooled for the second time before it returns this fall in the unprotected Monday 9:30 p.m. slot.
Given the track record of network-hoppers, it’s easy to wonder why the webs keep lapping up one another’s leftovers.
Just last month, ABC ordered Universal TV’s “Something So Right,” which NBC canceled after its first season, and CBS picked up six episodes of “Unsolved Mysteries,” which NBC also had pulled after a nine-year run.
CBS is also launching a new family block on Fridays with two shows that have run on ABC’s TGIF lineup for years: “Family Matters” and “Step by Step.”
Likewise, netlet UPN will be airing “Clueless,” which was canceled from ABC’s TGIF lineup after its first year.
So what’s going on here? The answer may lie in the fact that in some cases and on some nights, networks are aiming to fix problems rather than find hits. There’s also a belief that any show with any identity at all is easier to promote than a new series.
Take CBS’ new Friday night. The Eye web has constantly been plagued by advertisers saying the network needs younger demos. Moonves believes that even if “Family Matters” and “Step by Step” fare worse on CBS than on ABC, they can still serve a purpose.
“It’s an opportunity to get younger faster,” he said. “To create a family franchise from scratch would be impossible. No matter what happens Friday at 8 p.m., our demos will get younger, and we will be making more money.”
“Unsolved Mysteries,” on the other hand, is what networks term a “utility player.” It’s not an expensive show, so the risk is low, and reality shows tend to work in many different timeslots. If a more expensive series on CBS fails, “Unsolved Mysteries” can be plugged in as a short-term fix.
Another network jumper, “JAG,” which debuted on NBC, is certainly no runaway hit, but it has mended some ailing timeslots in its new home, CBS. When “JAG” was plugged into the Friday 8 p.m. slot, for instance, it increased the timeslot performance 18% in households and 17% in adults 18-49.
Still, this is a business of hits, and if a show is not a hit on one network, it has almost no chance of becoming a hit elsewhere. Shows that move between networks also tend to confuse the heck out of viewers.
“Awareness of network identity and branding is gone, and we’re desperately trying to get it back,” said one network researcher.
One strategy to cut the confusion is to keep shows in the same timeslots when they change channels.
“Family Matters” will remain in the same slot, and sources say “Something So Right” has a good chance of returning to its Tuesday 8:30 p.m. home on ABC if “Over the Top” doesn’t work there.
” ‘Something So Right’ was arguably placed in the wrong timeslot between ‘Mad About You’ and ‘Frasier,’ but if you put it on ABC, the family network, it could work,” said UTA TV co-chief Jay Sures, who helped package the show.
“Something So Right,” a sophisticated sitcom about a blended family, is also somewhat unique in that it was a borderline show that started to improve, and it actually won a Humanitas Award over the summer — after it had been axed. NBC tried to keep the show, but one lead actor has already signed on with ABC.
“There’s never been a dogfight for a show one network had,” said Ken Solomon, the new president of Universal TV. “There are a lot of people who feel it makes a great deal of sense as an ABC show.”
Aside from legitimate programming strategies, many industry observers believe ego is a driving force in some switcheroos.
If “Something So Right” does take off in year two on ABC, the Alphabet web will be able to score as many bragging points as NBC did after ABC passed on “3rd Rock From the Sun.”