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Fall bows a baptism of fire for new TV exex

It’s hell week for network TV’s crowded class of frosh execs.

With the bulk of this fall’s new skeins bowing between today and Sunday, new toppers and exec teams at four of the Big Six will soon have a pretty clear picture of just how tough their gigs will be.

Over at ABC, Lloyd Braun is starting his first season as co-head of the ABC Entertainment Group; ditto Garth Ancier at NBC. Doug Herzog at Fox and Suzanne Daniels at the WB are nearly as green, while NBC West Coast topper Scott Sassa came onboard a few weeks into last season.

How each of these execs will react when faced with the inevitable failure of one or more of their new frosh players is one of the season’s biggest unknowns.

Industry watchers won’t have to wait long: The first set of Nielsen numbers for the 1999-2000 season will be out today, with viewers rendering verdicts on high-profile Monday dramas such as NBC’s “Law & Order: Special Victims Unit,” CBS’ “Family Law” and WB’s “Safe Harbor.”

Tag-team faceoff

An even juicier battle plays out tonight when ABC’s “Dharma & Greg” and NBC’s “Will & Grace” go head to head at 9. The result of this showdown could play a major role in determining the shape of both webs’ seasons.

Meanwhile, two early series bows last week already are providing insight into what’s in store for two other nets.

Sunday’s successful sneak of “Judging Amy” has launched CBS into the 1999-2000 primetime season with momentum on its side, while Fox is pointed in the other direction due to the continued Nielsen inaction of its rookie comedy “Action.”

With “Action” looking sluggish in both its Thursday premiere and a Sunday rerun, Fox is in danger of finishing the Sept. 13-19 primetime Nielsens week — the last of the 1998-99 television year — in fourth place among adults 18-49 despite firstrun episodes of “Action,” “Get Real” and “Beverly Hills, 90210.”

CBS is expected to win the Sept. 13-19 week in homes and possibly could move ahead of Fox for third in adults 18-49, based in part on the solid preview showing of “Judging Amy” on Sunday. The new Amy Brenneman starrer, which bows in its regular 10 p.m. Tuesday timeslot today, earned roughly a 13.1 rating, 21 share in preliminary household Nielsens for Sunday night, and approximately a 5.0/13 in adults 18-49.

Chasing ‘Amy’?

If those prelim results stand when updated by Nielsen today, “Amy” will win its hour by both measures, with results that approach last season’s averages in this slot for “Touched by an Angel” (13.1/20 in homes, 5.5 in adults 18-49). Sunday football overruns may lead to significant adjustments to these prelim results, however.

Fox didn’t do as well Sunday, as its rerun of last Thursday’s “Action” premiere landed fourth in its 9:30-10 p.m. slot (a prelim 4.2/7 in homes and a 3.2/8 in adults 18-49), while facing mostly firstrun fare on the competing nets.

With neither Thursday’s “Action” nor Wednesday’s “Get Real” clicking yet, Fox is likely to finish Sept. 13-19, the last week before the start of the new Nielsen season, in fourth place among adults 18-49. It would mark the first time in 14 weeks CBS has moved ahead of Fox or any other Big Four net in 18-49 standings.

It was an atypical week, though, with CBS getting demo boosts from four “Everybody Loves Raymond” segs Monday and college football Saturday.

Adults squeaker

ABC appears poised to win the week in adults 18-49, but by just one- or two-tenths of a point over NBC. This is an unimpressive margin given the Alphabet’s big boosts last week from Monday football and Saturday’s Miss America pageant. The week’s projected results suggest NBC’s overall 18-49 leadership isn’t as vulnerable heading into the fall season as it had appeared to be over much of the summer.

A better read on the Peacock’s prognosis will come Friday morning, when Nielsen reports just how much steam is left in NBC’s Thursday night engine.

Much has been written about the increased competish on the night, but the bottom line is that NBC will continue to blow everyone else away.

What’s possible, however, is that the web could come down to earth a bit — not necessarily because of other nets, but because of the natural aging of “Frasier” and “ER.” (“Friends” remains a juggernaut.)

Among the shows looking to put a dent in NBC’s fortress, the ABC’s second half-hour of “Whose Line Is It Anyway?” could do some business opposite “Jesse.” “Action” could still build a following, but is off to a slow start.

Another test of NBC’s strength comes tonight with the showdown between “Dharma & Greg” and “Will & Grace.”

“Dharma” is ABC’s hottest young comedy, and the network is counting on the laffer to fill the void left by “Home Improvement.” NBC, meanwhile, decided to shift “W & G” to the 9 p.m. slot late in the summer after the show started building an aud in summer repeats.

Since ABC has dominated Tuesdays for so long, it has the most to lose if “Dharma” doesn’t produce. As for NBC, it’s hoping to establish its next big comedy franchise — perhaps even finding the show which one day might replace “Friends” on Thursdays.

As one industry insider puts it: “Tuesdays at 9 speaks to the future backbones of those two networks.”

Not that the rest of the week is a snoozer, competition-wise.

Few other nights are as up for grabs as Wednesday, particularly now that ABC’s sitcom lineup is sans “Dharma & Greg.”

ABC hopes to remain the comedy alternative on the night, but many observers are skeptical of the web’s chances with newcomers such as “Norm” and “It’s Like …You Know.”

NBC should do well at 8 and 10 with “Dateline” and the ever-strong “Law & Order” as bookends, but the wild card is “The West Wing.” The White House drama from the producer of “Sports Night” has solid buzz, but so did “Sports Night” — and the latter dramedy has yet to find its aud.

On a households basis, CBS shouldn’t be counted out. Its Tuesday movie was the net’s unhyped superstar last season. A repeat perf Wednesday could put the night in the win column for the Eye.

Another battleground worth watching is Sunday nights, where the Eye’s “Touched by an Angel” will square off against NBC’s “Third Watch.”

They might seem targeted at very different audiences, but the Eye’s heavenly hit could take a dip if NBC’s newcomer about emergency workers catches on Sundays at 8 p.m. following a sneak preview Thursday at 10 p.m. That’s because “Third Watch” producer John Wells (“ER”) knows how to tell stories that appeal equally to men and women — and women form the core of “Angel’s” aud.

Bottom line: “Angel’s” loyal fans aren’t going anywhere and should keep the show the most-watched series Sundays at 8. And “Amy’s” perf this weekend proves that CBS has a solid hold on Sunday auds.

Still, if “Third” catches fire, it could clean up with younger women — and may even be, as one insider puts it, “a game changer for NBC.”

Sunday’s firstrun films logged unspectacular Nielsens. CBS’ “Sealed With a Kiss” (roughly a 9.8/17 in homes, 3.9/11 in adults 18-49) and NBC’s “Fools Rush In” (a prelim 7.6/12, 4.7/12) both fell well short of results for comparable year-earlier movies.