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QUEEN OF THE SKITCOM : Tracey Ullman Has Lost Her Prized Anonymity, but Her Ratings Have Fox Grinning

April 17, 1988|HOWARD ROSENBERG | Howard Rosenberg is The Times' television critic

SHE BLEW in like a cyclone, driven by hope and hype. A noisy, electrifying, taut, frantic Cockney she was, a bundle of instincts, nerve endings, hairpin curves and surprises, a multi-minded, multistoried, multivoiced, multi-wigged, multi-faced colossus of comedy who was going to take American TV viewers on the thrilling ride of their lives.

And?

It's been a year since "The Tracey Ullman Show" began on Fox Broadcasting Co. as a Sunday night half-hour of innovative sketches and a little music--and still, relatively few viewers have bothered to go along for the ride.

A brief history:

British TV comedy and recording star gets own show on new Fox network. Always interesting, frequently entertaining, more than occasionally brilliant. Sings nicely, plays amazing range of characters. High acclaim, low ratings. At 28, rising star. Few movies include "Plenty." Several hit records. A scream on talk shows. Remarkable mimic. Wife of successful British TV producer Allan McKeown, 41. Mother of 2-year-old Mabel. Have voices, will travel. Some predict epic future.

She can be the next decade's major star, her first TV producer, Paul Jackson, says in London. She's "the sound you don't know you're missing until you've heard it," her present TV producer, James L. Brooks, weighs in.

The sound is going largely unheard.

Yes, the British dubbed Tracey Ullman "Our Trace." Yes, they went in droves to buy her pop album, "You Broke My Heart in 17 Places," and watched the telly in droves as she broke their funny bones in 17 places. In America, though, the colossus of comedy has collided with the colossus of TV reality. Will she ever appeal to America's masses?

"I like her show," says Kim Le--Masters, president of CBS Entertainment. "But would I program it? No. I appreciate it in a vacuum. She's very talented, but that doesn't always define the large audience and appetites a network likes to have."

"I don't know if she will ever be a major star," says Barbara Romen, vice president for comedy at Universal Television. "There's a distance between her and the audience. I don't think she exudes the warmth that Lily Tomlin does."

"I think the format that she's chosen inevitably will limit her success and access to a mainstream audience," observes Bob O'Connor, former head of CBS comedy. "But put her in a half-hour comedy series. . . ."

Ullman's first-year Nielsen ratings seem to support the skeptics. Through February, her show had averaged a tiny 3.1 rating and 5% share of the audience, reaching about 2.7 million TV households. Those audience totals rank her near the bottom of a Fox Sunday night lineup that is near the bottom of the national Nielsen rankings.

Given the newness of Fox as the nation's so-called fourth network, however, few industry observers expected any Fox prime-time show to immediately have a major impact in the ratings. What's more, Ullman's Nielsens have improved in 1988, stretching to a 4.6 rating and 7% audience share on Jan. 24, its best marks since its premiere.

That's enough to stiffen Fox's upper lip.

"Tracey is probably where most of us expected her to be in her first (full) season," says Jamie Kellner, Fox president and chief operating officer. "We believe as strongly as ever in Tracey as a real star. We're too new to be discouraged by ratings."

Kellner notes that Ullman has high appeal to the core 18-to-34 upscale age group that advertisers lust for. And he expects her exposure to grow in the 10 p.m. time slot she's occupied since March 6, concluding a 90-minute Fox comedy bloc led off by recently acquired reruns of the hilarious Showtime series, "It's Garry Shandling's Show."

"It's true that it's harder to discover Tracey on Fox than on NBC," Kellner says. But also easier for her to survive on Fox than on NBC. Not that NBC would have been interested in a rules-bending series like Ullman's in the first place.

Chance-taking Fox may be the ideal venue and Brooks, executive producer of her series, the ideal mentor for a performer as unconventional as Ullman. Fox surely was mainly eyeing Brooks' glittering pedigree (his latest movie is the lauded blockbuster "Broadcast News"; he also directed the Oscar-honored "Terms of Endearment" and was instrumental in "The Mary Tyler Moore Show," "Rhoda," "Taxi" and "Lou Grant" on TV) when it followed its original 26-episode commitment with an order for another 30 last October. Fox has also granted Ullman creative wide-open spaces compared with what she could expect elsewhere.

She's been called a social satirist. "It sounds really intelligent," she says, "so I'm going to say that's what I am, because I can't bear being called a wacky, zany comedienne. I'm not a comedienne. I'm a character actress. I couldn't get up and tell a joke to save my life."

C LICK . The TV picture flickers.

After 20 minutes of playing Francesca the precocious American teen-ager, Kay the drab British secretary and Summer Storm the drugged-out heavy-metal deejay, Tracey Ullman faces the camera as herself.

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