The TV season is nearly at the halfway mark, and viewers have registered their likes and dislikes--loud and clear.
In the ratings, where the so-called official season runs from September to April, ABC's two-hour Tuesday night block of "Home Improvement," "Grace Under Fire" and "NYPD Blue" has firmly established itself as network TV's favorite viewing period.
"Home Improvement," which NBC challenged with "Frasier" in the key matchup of the fall, is still the nation's No. 1 show in season-to-date ratings. "Grace Under Fire" is close behind at No. 2--and recently displaced "Home Improvement" for several weeks at the top.
"NYPD Blue," meanwhile, is a solid No. 5 and, in fact, is performing spectacularly in audience pull with its new leading man, Jimmy Smits, who replaced David Caruso when he decided to pursue a film career.
Caruso's farewell episode last month drew a whopping audience, as expected, but Smits has moved in easily, and nervousness over the show's future following Caruso's departure seems to have evaporated quickly.
"Frasier," meanwhile, has more than held its own as NBC's anchor show in establishing a Tuesday lineup. It is No. 11 for the season, and there is no more finely crafted weekly comedy series on network television.
Among other things, "Frasier" has helped raise the sitcom that follows it, "The John Larroquette Show," from 88th place last season to 39th this semester.
In addition, the momentum provided by "Frasier" has clearly carried over to the show that follows "Larroquette" as well, "Dateline NBC," which was 54th during last season but now is in 33rd place.
Next to ABC's Tuesday trio of blockbusters, viewers' other favorite programming block is "Seinfeld" and "ER," the sensationally successful new medical series, on NBC Thursday nights.
"Seinfeld" and "ER" are No. 3 and No. 4, respectively, this season. But the show that has linked them, the new sitcom "Madman of the People," is ho-hum despite its No. 14 ranking, which is only attributable to being sandwiched between the two hits.
The ranking of "NYPD Blue" and "ER" in the top five is a pleasant sight for fans of good TV dramas, which are regaining their popularity with viewers following a slump in which cheaper, tabloid-tinged newsmagazines began taking their place and infecting prime time with sleaze and sensationalism.
In addition, re-enacted reality shows are also showing signs of popularity loss. CBS' "Rescue 911," which was No. 21 last season, is No. 43 since the 1994-95 competition began in September. And NBC's "Unsolved Mysteries," which was No. 33 last season, currently is No. 78.
The newsmagazine drop-off has also been highly noticeable. In a key matchup, "ER" all but destroyed one of ABC's mainstay magazines, "PrimeTime Live," in the ratings, forcing it to be moved from Thursdays to Wednesdays next month.
While "ER" is No. 4 in the ratings, "PrimeTime Live" has plummeted to 57th place. Last season, it was a powerful No. 19 for ABC.
And although "Dateline NBC" is No. 33, it still is no match for its head-on competition of "NYPD Blue."
"ER" has also made mincemeat out of another competing newsmagazine, CBS' "Eye to Eye With Connie Chung." And on Wednesdays, yet another first-rate drama, NBC's "Law & Order," walloped CBS' "48 Hours" for most of the season, although the magazine turned in stronger numbers recently.
Nonetheless, in its overall matchup, "Law & Order" is doing better than ever in 22nd place--a vast improvement over its No. 49 finish last season. "48 Hours," meanwhile, has slipped from 46th place last season to 62nd since autumn.
What with crime-heavy local news, syndicated tabloid series and freak-show talk programs, it is likely that viewers are simply tiring of even more such stuff in newsmagazines.
How many programs on the O.J. Simpson case can viewers swallow without gagging at the repetition, the stretching for angles, the analysis that goes poof in the air? How many sordid crimes and sob stories can viewers stomach? The occasional positive tale of heroism cannot reverse the nightly overall impact.
There can never be a shortage of stories, but it's all in the telling and especially in the attitude. And after a while, a kind of boredom and/or revulsion sets in as the relentless pounding of the underside of life makes voyeurs of us all, insensitive to just more slimy twists on what we seem to have seen a thousand times.
At the start of the fall season, 10 newsmagazines were either on or planned for 1994-95. Fox had already canceled "Front Page" and then ditched plans for a newsmagazine called "Full Disclosure." CBS had also canceled "America Tonight."
At the moment, the leaders of the pack, "60 Minutes" and "20/20," are still doing well. But ABC's "Turning Point," even with such names as Barbara Walters and Diane Sawyer, was switched from a weekly show to specials. And other newsmagazines either are or may be in a state of flux, with the networks sizing up new time slots in hopes of reviving them.