CBS Hoping to Build on 'Quinn' Success

April 10, 1993|RICK DU BROW

CBS is trying to get lucky again on Saturdays, where its surprise hit "Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman" breathed new life into TV's least-watched night.

Just a week away from easily wrapping up its second consecutive year as network ratings champion--the so-called official season ends April 18--CBS tonight plans to add two sitcoms to its Saturday lineup: the new "A League of Their Own" and the return of "Brooklyn Bridge."

And then, on April 24, the network will round out its new spring look for Saturdays with Chuck Norris' first TV series, a weekly hour titled "Walker, Texas Ranger," in which the action-movie star plays a modern-day lawman. The series, which CBS has given a 13-episode order, has a two-hour debut April 21.

"A League of Their Own," from the Penny Marshall film about women's baseball, and "Brooklyn Bridge," about a New York family, will arrive back-to-back tonight from 9 to 10, barring preemptions for developments in the Rodney G. King trial.

Both series are regarded as long shots, but the tryouts are also a test of the lead-in strength of "Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman," which would assume even more ratings significance for CBS if they do better than expected. "Dr. Quinn" already ranks 22nd among the 139 network series seen this season, averaging 24% of the national TV audience.

The major point for CBS is that it is trying to establish firm control of Saturdays, formerly one of its weak spots, while it is up for grabs. Despite being the No. 1 network, CBS has to compensate for other problems as it goes into the new fall season. The other day, for instance, it was confirmed that Susan Dey will not return next fall as co-star of the sitcom "Love & War," one of CBS' top new ventures.

"Love & War" and "Hearts Afire," while doing comparatively well with their racy contemporary styles, nonetheless have not yet taken off in the ratings despite being cushioned comfortably among such established hits as "Murphy Brown" and "Northern Exposure" on CBS' highly popular Monday lineup.

In an eye-opening TV development, "Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman"--although drubbed by some writers, including yours truly--stole the thunder from the sexier "Hearts Afire" and "Love & War" at CBS with its clumsily presented, yet warmly traditional, family values.

CBS may not be betting on its springtime Saturday night look for the long haul, but the unexpected success of "Dr. Quinn" probably has the network hoping for another miracle. If, for example, "Walker, Texas Ranger" earns some more viewer interest with its traditional-sounding format, the network might wind up with two hours of popular Saturday programming compared to none when the season started.

The entire new Saturday lineup at least seems to have a distinct theme--nostalgia--aimed at the middle-aged and older viewers who are more likely to stay home on weekends.

"Dr. Quinn" is a Western about a frontier physician (Jane Seymour). "A League of Their Own," which opens with an episode directed by Penny Marshall and guest-stars Jon Lovitz and Garry Marshall, is set in 1943. "Brooklyn Bridge" takes places in the late 1950s. And "Walker, Texas Ranger" has Norris using "crime-solving methods (that) have their roots in the time-honored traditions of the Old West"--whatever that means.

The case of "Brooklyn Bridge" is well known. Wonderfully crafted but moved around by CBS and troubled in the ratings, it is widely regarded as already canceled even though the network maintains that it is not--and is running out seven episodes not yet seen, saying in effect that it is a last chance for the series.

"Brooklyn Bridge" should have been an hour series all along; it played best in several episodes of that length. But in any case, it would take some sort of supernatural development to halt official cancellation of the series--even though it won eight Emmy nominations last year and thousands of viewers nationwide wrote angrily to CBS when the network pulled it from the schedule earlier this season.

If you have thus far missed "Brooklyn Bridge," which stars Marion Ross, at least check it out. Especially if you're a Nielsen family.

The mystery of Saturday night is no mystery at all, despite the efforts of TV types to try to make it sound mysterious. Programs such as "The Commish" and "Sisters"--in addition to "Dr. Quinn"--continue to show that network series can draw on Saturday night if the audience finds something special in them.

ABC's "The Commish" is 57th among the season's 139 series; NBC's "Sisters" is 71st; and both shows average a respectable 19% of the television audience even though they are both on at 10 p.m.

In addition, despite the belief that younger viewers are a lost cause for the networks on Saturday night--what with VCRs, movie-going and weekend social activity--"Saturday Night Live" has been registering high-flying ratings once again.

Part of the reason is probably baby boomers who have long followed "SNL" and now have families.

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