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TELEVISION : Sunday evenings once belonged to Ed Sullivan, then 'Maverick' and 'All in the Family.'Now the four networks are squaring off at 8 o'clock with costly challengers to the reigning queen; yes, the stakes are enormous : The Sunday Night Fights

THE NEW SEASON. One of a series.

September 12, 1993|DANIEL CERONE | Daniel Cerone is a Times staff writer. and

In May, ABC Entertainment President Ted Harbert was in New York with his fellow network executives, collectively scratching their heads and trying to figure out how best to lay out their schedule of fall TV programs, when a most unusual telephone call came to his room at the Regency Hotel.

The call, according to sources at ABC, was from an anonymous NBC executive who'd been directed to deliver a message: "The NBC network wants you to know, before you set your fall schedule, that we plan to put 'seaQuest' on Sunday at 8 p.m."

ABC had been eyeing that time slot for a new romantic drama, "Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman," which, like NBC's underwater adventure series from executive producer Steven Spielberg, carried a big budget, big special effects and big merchandising hopes--and was aimed at the same family audience.

"I suppose they thought that would scare us out of there," said a senior ABC executive.

No such luck. ABC went ahead and slotted "Lois & Clark" for 8 p.m. Sunday, setting the stage for the biggest showdown of the fall television season--and not just between ABC and NBC. CBS is the reigning champion in that time slot with "Murder, She Wrote," returning for its 10th season after finishing No. 5 overall in the prime-time ratings last season. And Fox joined the fray in a major way by moving in the half-hour comedy "Martin," its top-rated new show of last season, when it was seen on Thursdays, then following it at 8:30 with a very compatible new comedy, "Living Single."

"Welcome to the battle of the titans," says Deborah Joy Levine, creator of "Lois & Clark." It begins tonight.

The stakes in the battle are enormous. The hour between 8 and 9 on Sunday night is the most important in network television. The reason: More people watch TV on Sunday night than any other night of the week, and more of them watch during that hour than any other. Thus, a strong showing there sets up the program that follows--movies in the case of ABC, CBS and NBC--serves as a tremendous promotional platform to plug other network programs coming up that week and weighs heavily in the weekly ratings averages.

Last season, "Murder, She Wrote"--itself the beneficiary of a powerhouse lead-in from the top-rated "60 Minutes"--attracted an average of 25% of the people who were sitting in front of the TV on Sundays at 8 p.m., compared to 18% for ABC and 15% each for NBC and Fox. The "CBS Sunday Movie" then won the competition from 9 to 11 p.m.--drawing the same 25% of the audience--and CBS in turn won the prime-time ratings race.

"It's been our experience in the last couple years that we are winning the week through Saturday night, and our final standing comes down to how well we do on Sunday night," said Alan Sternfeld, senior vice president for program planning and scheduling at ABC. "In many instances, up until 7 on Sunday night we would be the leading network in ratings for the week, then CBS would be propelled to a win on the strength of '60 Minutes,' 'Murder, She Wrote' and movies."

Peter Tortorici, senior vice president of programming for CBS, doesn't dispute Sternfeld's analysis. "They don't pay off horse races on how you manage to cross the finish line," he said. "They only pay off on the basis of whether you cross first."

Dating back to the earliest days of television, Sunday night has been home to some of the medium's most popular programs, from Ed Sullivan's "Toast of the Town" to "Maverick," "Bonanza," "Lassie," "Walt Disney's Wonderful World of Color," "Kojak" and "All in the Family."

"I remember, growing up, what it was like to sit around the television Sunday nights with my parents and watch a good show," said Levine of "Lois & Clark." "That hasn't happened for me, a member of the thirtysomething generation, for a long time."

"There used to be such great Sunday-night shows, like 'Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea,' " echoed Phil Segal, vice president of Spielberg's Amblin Entertain ment. "They may have been sophomoric, but they entertained, and (the industry has) moved away from that."

The networks largely stopped producing action-adventure series in recent years because they grew to be too expensive in an era of soaring production costs and shrinking audiences. So the action series, led by "Star Trek: The Next Generation," migrated to first-run syndication, where they have further contributed to the erosion of network ratings by stealing away viewers.

Now, the networks are fighting to bring them back, and ABC and NBC have chosen Sunday night to roll out their class acts for the 1993-94 season. "Clearly, in terms of the one-hour form, there was a definite desire on the part of the networks to get back to much more action-adventure," said Leslie Moonves, president of Warner Bros. Television, which is making the new "Superman" series. "So it was a natural that these two shows that are both bigger than life--'Lois & Clark' and 'seaQuest'--would see the light of day in a very important way."

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