Seventeen days into the fall television season, ABC moved Wednesday to shore up its sagging ratings by canceling its lowest-rated program, "Once a Hero," which in its three broadcasts combined had been seen by fewer than half the people who watch a single episode of NBC's top-rated "The Cosby Show."
"Once a Hero," a fantasy series about a comic-book hero come to life, attracted a paltry 10% of the viewing audience when it premiered Sept. 19 and did even worse its next two times out.
"I can't blame them," Dusty Kay, the program's creator and executive producer, said of ABC's decision. "They cannot justify numbers like that. We'd have had to double our numbers even to be considered a borderline show."
The first cancellation of the 1987-88 season came as all three major networks were grappling with prime-time ratings that collectively are about 9% lower than for the same period a year ago. Explanations for the decline vary from the introduction of a new audience-measurement system called a "people meter" to poor programming.
Replacing "Once a Hero" on Saturdays at 8 p.m. will be "Sable," an adventure series starring Lewis Van Bergen as a writer of children's stories who doubles as what the network describes as "a passionate man of action who risks his life helping others." Until it premieres Nov. 7, ABC will fill that time slot with specials.
"Once a Hero" had been handicapped even before it went on the air by the fact that some of ABC's affiliated stations declined to carry it, choosing instead to run syndicated shows. But Kay said that he thought a bigger factor in its failure to attract viewers was the misperception many people had that it was a super-hero show aimed primarily at children, when in fact it had what he called satirical, adult sensibilities.
"Once a Hero" was not the only show canceled Wednesday. Lorimar announced that it had pulled the plug on its revival of "Truth or Consequences," a syndicated game show that had suffered such low ratings since its debut Sept. 14 that some stations already had moved it to new time periods.
The 152 stations carrying "Truth or Consequences" had signed up for a year of episodes--26 weeks of originals and 26 of reruns--but Lorimar said that it would free them of all obligations after two cycles of the 12 weeks' worth of episodes that had been produced to date.
Meanwhile, some network officials were voicing concern Wednesday over the early returns for the new TV season, which show NBC, CBS and ABC all drawing lower ratings than last year. Their combined ratings for the first week were 7% below the same period a year ago, while the second week's figures were down 11.4%.
Even NBC, which has suffered the smallest decline and which decisively won the first two weeks of prime-time competition, was doing some hand-wringing.
"It's always of concern if the three-network rating is off to any unusual degree," said Gerald Jaffe, vice president of research. "A certain amount of business comes to us (in network television) because we reach a large audience; to the extent that the audience is smaller, some of that business may not be there."
Whether business will be affected depends on whether the ratings remain depressed and, if so, on the causes of the lower viewership. A variety of factors were being cited Wednesday.
Most prominently mentioned was the introduction by A. C. Nielsen Co. of its new system for measuring the television audience. Since Sept. 1, the research company has been using a new sample of 2,000 households hooked up to a people-meter system that requires viewers to "log in" on a computer when they are watching TV. The old system merely recorded when the set was on and asked viewers to mail in diaries of who in the house was watching.
Arnold Becker, vice president of research at CBS, said that combination of a new measurement system and an entirely new universe of households being measured might easily explain the ratings differences between this season and last. He noted that some decline would have been expected anyway because the networks' combined share of audience has been going down for several years as competition from independents, cable TV and videocassette records has increased.
"I don't think (the lower numbers for this season) mean the decline has accelerated," he said. "It just means the measuring tool has changed."
Mike Proper, vice president of sales research at Turner Broadcasting System, which operates Cable News Network and cable superstation WTBS, agreed that the lower network ratings were part of a continuing erosion. "If we had not gone to the people meter, I think we would have seen the same basic pattern (this season)--though possibly not as pronounced," he said.
Other researchers noted that the total number of homes watching television during the past two weeks has been slightly lower than for the same period a year ago, and that last week's ratings were adversely affected by the absence of "Monday Night Football" on ABC because of the players' strike.
Still, NBC's Jaffe said that the networks--or two of them, at least--bear some of the blame for the lower ratings.
"I don't want to knock the other networks," he said, "but basically what's happened is that they have not put on competitive schedules. I don't want to call it flight from network television, but it is a larger loss than you would expect."