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Doing A Little Fall Arithmetic


NEW YORK — TV viewers this fall will face the biggest offering of new shows in a generation, and that reflects the changing nature of prime-time television, says a network ratings analyst.

"For the three traditional networks, their 32 newcomers will be the largest rookie class since 1966," says David Poltrack, CBS' senior vice president for research and planning.

Add the eight new shows from Fox Broadcasting, and the total equals the most new shows ever introduced in a season (tying with 1961).

Yet few of those 40 new shows are likely to survive.

"Last season, we tracked 36 new programs (from all four networks) beginning in the fall," Poltrack says. "At the end of the season, only 11 of the 36 remained."

Today's viewer is much less inclined even to try a new show. Just 10 years ago, Poltrack says, a third of all viewers would try a typical new show during the first two months of the season.

"Last season, that figure fell from 33% to 16%, down from 18% the previous season," he says.

This fall, NBC will offer 8 1/2 hours of shows, ABC will have 8 hours, CBS 6 1/2 and Fox 6 hours, even though no network ever successfully has put more than five hours of new shows on the air. (Poltrack defines success here as simply improving the ratings performance of a time period.)

The content of those 29 hours is changing, too.

For the Big Three networks, comedies represent 37% of the schedule, up 1% from last season, and dramas constitute 26%, up 2%.

That increase comes largely from adult-oriented dramas. Despite the success of CBS' "Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman,' seven other "soft," family-oriented dramas are leaving the air and only three will debut this fall.

The "action-adventure" category's share of the schedule has shrunk, from 22% three seasons ago to 13% this fall.

"It was the lowest-rated genre," Poltrack explains, "15% below the all-series average, with an 8% decline from the previous season."

"Reality" programs are waning and will decline to 10% of the schedule, Poltrack says.

News and information shows will expand 2%, to take up 15% of the prime-time schedule. They averaged a 14.5 rating last season, 23% higher than the average for all series, Poltrack says.

Although there are nine "magazine" shows on the fall schedule, Poltrack doesn't predict a glut.

"There is space for one in every hour of prime time as an alternative viewing source, but two will never succeed head to head," he says. "I think the news and information shows will gradually edge out the 'reality' shows before they start bumping into each other."

When any of these new shows fail, top-rated CBS has a new strategy on backup series developed in recent years, he says.

The networks set their fall schedules, then choose "backup" series that didn't make the fall schedule for midseason replacements that start showing up in January.

"By the time they appear, human nature being what it is, we have convinced ourselves that they all have hit potential," Poltrack says. "The same shows that in May were judged to be inferior ... now seem far superior."

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