NEW YORK — The network love-in is over and hard reality has set in.
Save for a lone standout — NBC’s post-“Seinfeld” “Veronica’s Closet” — none of the 32 new series gracing Big Four schedules this fall is seen as capable of becoming a breakout hit, according to a Daily Variety survey of key ad agency execs.
Although most new series fail, the especially tepid reaction this year is bound to sober networks and producers still giddy about their fall lineups and hopeful that some ratings magic will stem broadcasting’s steady slide.
Webs will be cheered, however, that a still-robust ad market guarantees at least decent gains for their primetime coffers in the current upfront market despite the viewer falloff. While cable has gained, it’s unlikely to pose a serious threat to broadcast’s ad dominance anytime soon.
Still, any hope that primetime’s patina will improve seems dashed by the lack of a discernible “Friends” or “ER,” both of which catapulted NBC into a comfortable lead three years ago.
And it’s not just that media buyers get negative this time of year as a negotiating ploy, as some networks claim. If anything, several were too kind with last year’s predictions.
What’s changed is a dawning reality that the thinning ranks of seasoned writers and producers continues to weaken development, and the TV star-power alone of a Ted Danson is no guarantee of success.
Networks compound the problem with me-too scheduling that increasingly ignores counterprogramming, diminishing chances for a hit by diluting available audiences.
Fourteen new and returning series will compete in a two-hour stretch on Wednesdays, while the Big Three will fill their Saturday slates with wall-to-wall dramas. All of which can turn a would-be hit into a passable performer.
“The definitions (of success) need to change, because many networks are starting to realize that ‘ER’-type hits don’t come around so often,” says Steve Sternberg, senior partner at BJK&E Media Group. “So they’re keeping series on the air longer than three or four years ago (when they) might have been canceled after a month.”
Madison Avenue’s view is that true hits both dominate their timeslot and retain at least 85% of their lead-ins, a feat now more difficult to achieve.
But the post-fin-syn increase in in-house production has made webs more patient than ever: With 10 newsmags thrown in, networks will own 46% of their primetime schedules this fall, up from 31% just two years earlier.
Early predictions for the fourth quarter have combined network audience shares continuing to trend downward, but at a slower clip than last year. The Big Four should be down 2 share points to 56% of primetime viewing households, and all six webs down at least 1 point, to 60%.
Based on fall-schedule presentations and pilots, most ad mavens expect ABC and NBC to finish the 1997-98 season losing at least another share point, after losses in the season just ended; CBS, Fox and UPN should remain stable, with slight improvement by CBS in younger demos; and the WB may even gain a point (see chart).
NBC wins again, despite clear wins on only Thursday, but its margin of victory will continue to shrink.
“CBS will be a tad stronger next season and, once football is over, I think they will definitely take over from ABC to solidify a position as No. 2 in households,” says Frank Campisi, senior VP of national broadcast research at SFM Media. “These days, to simply hang on is a major achievement.”
Key contests are shaping up on Tuesday, where NBC should take the lead-off hour with “Mad About You” and “NewsRadio,” but ABC will claim the rest of the night; and on Friday, where the Eye web’s new family slate looks like a virtual dead heat with ABC’s TGIF block. (With “20/20” thrown in at 10, ABC wins the night).
Wednesday once again looks like a toss-up, with CBS’ “The Nanny” edging out ABC’s “Spin City” at 8 but the Alphabet web prevailing by the narrowest of margins the rest of the night, including a slight victory by “Drew Carey Show” over NBC’s “3rd Rock From the Sun” in the season’s key sitcom battle.
“Veronica’s Closet,” the Warner Bros. sitcom with Kirstie Alley as a lingerie tycoon, is seen as the only surefire success story, in part because it’s the Peacock’s most compatible performer yet with “Seinfeld” on Thursday nights.
“It should hold onto the ‘Seinfeld’ audience better than anyone had before,” says Sternberg, referring to “Suddenly Susan,” “The Naked Truth,” “Caroline in the City” and “Fired Up,” all facing questionable futures on NBC’s new Monday-night lineup.
Apart from “Closet,” which gives Warner Bros. its fourth of five NBC Thursday shows, buyers were uniformly pessimistic that ABC’s five new dramas and any of Fox’s six new series would pose a serious challenge to the more established leaders in their time periods.
But each network has its own standards. Fox can sustain a show with an 11 or 12 share, equaling its overall household average, while “Union Square” is pegged as doubtful on NBC despite an expected 23 share — because that amounts to a 5-point deficit from lead-in “Friends,” a gap that wouldn’t comfort NBC even though it owns the show.
“Each network has its own issues,” says Paul Schulman, president of Paul Schulman Co. “Fox is keeping its schedule stable, and I think that could pay dividends. ABC is totally dependent on new development.
“CBS is hopeful that the building blocks they put in place can be used to launch new shows. And NBC hopes the satellite programs it launched behind successful series can make it on their own.”
Given the inevitable spate of new series and new timeslots for returning shows, picking winners admittedly is an inexact science. A look at predictions for last season show CBS’ “Ink” and “Pearl” and NBC’s “Something So Right” as probable hits, although none will return this fall.
Others in that category — including “Suddenly Susan,” “Spin City,” “Millennium” and “Early Edition” — are returning, despite audience slippage after promising starts, and none can yet be counted as an unqualified, stand-alone hit.
On the other hand, none of the 10 shows identified last year as “doubtful” will be back, confirming the notion that it’s always easier to pick a flop than a hit.