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And the Winner Will Be . . .

Television: What shows and network will reign supreme in the new season? Two former network presidents and a pair of advertising agency handicappers mark up their scorecards.


Television executives frequently use war analogies when discussing the prime-time ratings. If so, the 1996-97 season's "battle" can be broken down to nightly skirmishes on seven different fronts.

Networks approach the schedule night by night, hoping to establish successful programming blocks and eventually attack elsewhere by redeploying those troops throughout the week.

Prime-time leader NBC has used that strategy by spinning shows from TV's most valuable real estate, its Thursday lineup, to Tuesday, Sunday and now Wednesday, where the network is launching another two-hour block of sitcoms anchored by the well-traveled "Wings" and "NewsRadio."

NBC appears virtually certain to repeat as the ratings champ, buoyed by its Thursday murderer's row of "Friends," "Seinfeld" and "ER." ABC may actually win more nights, but the Peacock network's overwhelming Thursday strength--combined with serious challenges on Tuesday and Friday, nights ABC once dominated--is expected to result in a substantial victory margin each week.

With some of its long-running hits losing steam, ABC figures to be a more distant second and challenged in overall ratings by CBS, which still figures to finish well back in the key demographics that dictate advertising rates. Fox can make inroads thanks partly to televising major sports events such as the Super Bowl and World Series.

To analyze the new season, The Times asked two former network presidents and a pair of advertising agency handicappers to appraise how the schedules stack up.

Fred Silverman oversaw programming at all three networks before forming his own company, producing such shows as "Diagnosis Murder" and the "Perry Mason" movies. Kim LeMasters headed CBS Entertainment from 1987-89 during a 13-year tenure at the network and is currently president of producer Stephen J. Cannell's company. Mike Clark and Chuck Bachrach monitor prime-time viewing trends for Leo Burnett USA and Rubin Postaer & Associates, respectively.

In general, after a season in which combined viewing of ABC, CBS and NBC fell, the network alumni offer little optimism about stemming that tide.

"I don't see a major change in the rankings, nor do I see a show that's going to go on the air and become a smash hit," Silverman said. "By and large, my overall reaction is there's too much of the same. I don't see any attempts to really try to shake things up a bit."

LeMasters agreed, citing a shortage of risk-taking programs despite the addition of new networks and a proliferation of shows. "Nobody is developing counter-programming," he said. "Everybody has the exact same template."

Bachrach and Clark were slightly more enthusiastic. They each called ABC's Michael J. Fox comedy, "Spin City," "the hit of the season," and both are high on the Fox network's "Millennium"--the latest show from "The X-Files" creator Chris Carter--and CBS' new sitcom "Everybody Loves Raymond." The latter may be a true longshot by airing Fridays, a night on which CBS has traditionally struggled.

Of the 39 new prime-time network programs, it's assumed certain shows--particularly the Brooke Shields NBC comedy "Suddenly Susan" (which is sandwiched between "Seinfeld" and "ER") and "Spin City" (scheduled after "Home Improvement")--will perform well because of their time periods.

The question is how well. Bachrach suggested that expectations for Shields' show will be high based on NBC's promotional barrage during the Olympics, which could result in a letdown if the series doesn't live up to the hype.

The networks clearly need some breakthrough hits to sprout from the new series crop, with "The Simpsons" and "Seinfeld" beginning their eighth seasons; "Roseanne," "Coach" and "Murphy Brown" entering their ninth; and "Married . . . With Children" starting season No. 11.

Another question is how key gambles involving returning shows pan out with more than two dozen series in new time periods (in some cases on different networks). Silverman and LeMasters credit CBS with the best move by flying "Touched by an Angel" from Saturdays to Sundays, inheriting the post-"60 Minutes" slot that once belonged to "Murder, She Wrote."

In a sign of TV's crowded times, the new season features six-network nights on Mondays and Wednesdays, thanks to UPN and WB, which also program Tuesdays and Sundays, respectively.

The following is a night-by-night look at the new TV season, which officially begins Monday:


All eyes will be on Bill Cosby's new sitcom, "Cosby," leading off a revised CBS lineup that includes "Murphy Brown" and "Cybill." ("Ink," the Ted Danson show initially scheduled for 8:30 p.m., will be replaced by Rhea Perlman's "Pearl" until at least mid-October.)

Bachrach thinks viewers will sample "Cosby" out of curiosity but questions how many will stay with the show. "I think long-term they've got a problem," he said.

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