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Mondays Cure 'Hope's' Ratings Ills

Television: CBS' medical series suffered going head to head with 'ER' on Thursday nights, but shifting time slots has helped rejuvenate the show.

April 15, 1996|STEVE WEINSTEIN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Actors and producers of hit shows suffer no shortage of acclaim and fame. They're interviewed and reported on endlessly. They win awards. They're lavished with credit and praise for luring big audiences each week. But all of these people--and much of their success or failure--are at the mercy of people who the average TV viewer has barely heard of: network programming executives. The keepers of the time slot. Case in point: CBS' "Chicago Hope."

When it premiered in fall 1994, the network used "Chicago Hope" as a soldier in a war against rival NBC's decade-old stranglehold on Thursday nights. The series was blessed with a sterling pedigree in its creator David E. Kelley, perennial Emmy winner for "L.A. Law" and "Picket Fences." Its cast included Broadway star Mandy Patinkin.

Still, in one of the most hyped network battles in many years, it lost badly to that other new medical series, "ER," which quickly went on to become television's most popular show.

But since CBS moved the show to Mondays last year, the show has flourished. And in fact, it's finally a regular top 20 hit, now that the "Monday Night Football" season ended.

"It's terrible sometimes what the networks do to you," said Patricia Green, consulting producer of "Chicago Hope."

"They take their best shows and they put them in this meat grinder of intense competition because they are very competitive themselves and want to take back that time period. But what often happens is they end up killing off some of the best shows on television."

Adam Arkin, one of the show's stars agrees. "My feeling is that if you do a show of high quality, it will eventually almost always carve out an audience--provided the time slot doesn't present insurmountable obstacles. We all thought that we were doing just too good a show to feel like we were in any kind of peril."

Hector Elizondo, another of the show's main players, conceded that all who toil in television are absolutely at the mercy of network programmers. "But you have to take a broad, philosophical view of the thing. . . . We just kept on doing our work."

But it wasn't easy given all the attention to the Battle of the Medical Shows. "I was somewhat bemused at how the press handled it," Elizondo said. "They kept asking if we were feeling the pressure because the other medical show was winning, but the only pressure we were feeling was from the press.

"On the set, we were always fine and focused on what was of cardinal importance: just getting through the damn 15-hour day. And I always laughed at the press as they blew this thing up bigger and bigger because this isn't rocket science for God's sake. It isn't even as hard as playing third base."

*

Time slot might be everything, but the show has changed some this season, which most certainly helped propel the show up the ratings chart.

Patinkin, who was the center of the show's first season as the brilliant but tortured chief surgeon, decided to leave, save for a few episodes. In came another stage and movie actor, Christine Lahti, and her presence, the staff of "Chicago Hope" admit, helped make the show more appealing to female viewers. "Mandy is a tough act to follow, and we knew we couldn't replace him," said John Tinker, the show's executive producer. (While Kelley still writes some of the episodes, he is not working day to day on the show.)

"We wanted to do something altogether different and we brought in a woman surgeon. I always have thought that some of the best stories come from having a woman fighting her way in a man's world. We didn't sit down and try to feminize the show, but we are aware of who our audience is on Monday nights and there is some truth that the female audience will sit down and watch a show that takes its time with developing characters and stories."

"ER" of course, with new medical crises racing in the hospital door every few minutes, is much faster paced, as was "Chicago Hope" last year. "There is truth to that macho surgical world that David Kelley was exploring in the first season, but it would seem now that we really have expanded the female audience this year," said Green, who previously wrote for "Cagney and Lacey," "L.A. Law" and "China Beach."

'At first you really had almost no women on the show," Green said. "And for some reason 10 p.m. Mondays has always been a strong time for women to watch television. 'Cagney and Lacey' was there for many years, and now with Christine Lahti's character the equal of the men, I think we have captured some of that audience."

Still, Lahti herself said that women won't automatically watch just because the show added a female surgeon. They sit down, she said, because her character is just as complex and competent and funny and fallible as the men.

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