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Shape of Things to Come for Networks

June 05, 1993|RICK DU BROW

The May sweeps had the big "Cheers" farewell, but June is quietly shaping up as a significant television month that will help define the future face of the networks.

Surely the most important entertainment development will be another farewell when David Letterman leaves NBC on June 25 after 11 seasons and heads for his new home at CBS, where he will resume his late-night series in August.

In prime time, meanwhile, two more one-hour newsmagazines will be added to those that increasingly are flooding the networks and displacing drama series. CBS' "Eye to Eye With Connie Chung" arrives June 17, and Fox's "Front Page," originating from the landmark Bradbury Building in downtown Los Angeles, premieres on June 26.

Both newsmagazines will go through shakedown periods through the summer before joining the regular fall lineups. Yet another such entry, "NBC News Magazine," with Tom Brokaw and Katie Couric, will be launched in August and also be on the weekly fall schedule.

For network executives, these and other newsmagazines are prime time's new drama form, far cheaper to produce than filmed fiction series.

Letterman's departure from NBC, coming only 13 months after Johnny Carson left the same network as a nightly performer, is a devastating blow to the broadcast company. Last in the ratings, NBC at least could claim not only dominance in late-night but, more important, the most prestigious two-hour entertainment block on network TV.

For viewers, Letterman's move means a whole new look to late-night, where the field now is so wide open to all comers that Rush Limbaugh's TV series has become the No. 3 program in the ratings, trailing only Ted Koppel's "Nightline" and Jay Leno's "Tonight Show."

Although Whoopi Goldberg's syndicated late-night series bit the dust the other day after just one season because of low ratings, the field will be crowded by summer's end with the arrival of Chevy Chase on Fox and the unknown Conan O'Brien as Letterman's replacement on NBC.

Arsenio Hall, who will be bumped or shown later on a number of CBS and Fox stations because of the arrivals of Letterman and Chase, will also be trying to figure a way to keep his syndicated series afloat in the jammed late-night field.

Viewers clearly are in the mood for something new. Only 54% of the national audience watched the programming of ABC, CBS and NBC last week, tuning out quickly after the high-profile May ratings sweeps ended and setting the stage for a long, hot summer for the Big Three.

Hoping to make it even hotter are cable, pay TV and Fox, all of whom usually make inroads against the traditional networks in the summer. The Bravo cable channel, for instance, will begin rerunning the entire, canceled ABC series "Twin Peaks" on Friday. And the much-talked-about comedies "The Larry Sanders Show" and "Dream On" give HBO firepower.

The desire of viewers for something special was indicated last week when the Top 10 network shows included the Daytime Emmy Awards, a 15th anniversary edition of "20/20," a revival of "The Beverly Hillbillies" and the finale of "Designing Women."

Even NBC's new, tongue-in-cheek, private eye comedy "Black Tie Affair," which the network all but smothered by launching it at 10 p.m. Saturday on Memorial Day weekend, managed 14% of the national audience and finished 59th among 84 shows. (The series' creator, Jay Tarses, was, by the way, justified in protesting NBC's absurd decision to change the show's title from "Smoldering Lust" to the totally misleading "Black Tie Affair.")

"Twin Peaks" is the first entry in a showcase that Bravo is calling "TV Too Good for TV," and the full 32 hours will run weekly through Christmas. The spellbinding two-hour premiere, which set the nation talking when aired by ABC in 1990, will be shown at 5 p.m. and10 p.m. on Friday. And, on June 29, there will be a "Twin Peaks" marathon--the premiere and the next two episodes.

Bravo says the entire series will be presented without commercial interruptions, and there will be new introductions written by co-creator David Lynch and featuring the "Log Lady" (Catherine E. Coulson).

Back in virtual reality, Couric, whose "Today" show success now has thrust her into the prime-time spotlight, will offer an hour interview special with Hillary Rodham Clinton on Thursday at 10 p.m., including a look at the second-floor private residence of the White House.

As for the month's newsmagazine arrivals, Chung's will not be her first, but "Front Page" is new territory for Fox. On paper, the content sounds pretty much like other prime-time newsmagazines, and the format doesn't sound much different either: "Each edition contains three major stories and a variety of short features, such as video essays and short commentaries."

However, given Fox's audience, the tone of the program certainly figures to be more youthful, and the series, rather than emanating from a news studio, is using the Bradbury Building instead for "an urban, downtown flavor" that it wants to reflect "the feel of the show." Los Lobos will do the theme music--what would a news program be without music? And Fox quite clearly is going its own way again.

With the new teaming of Chung and Dan Rather on the "CBS Evening News," this month and the remainder of the summer will also be a shakedown period that competing networks will study for ratings impact, if any. Like Rather, Brokaw has also trailed ABC's nightly anchor, Peter Jennings, in the ratings. And if the CBS pairing shows any life signs, other nightly news personnel changes might develop.

That's show biz.

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