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The Prime-Time Pack : THE NETWORKS, LOOKING TO INCREASE THEIR AUDIENCE, PUT THE EMPHASIS ON COMEDY, BRINGING BACK BIG STARS AND ADDING TEACHERS, ALIENS AND CONSPIRACIES TO THE MIX

Preview '96

September 15, 1996|STEVEN LINAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Last fall, the networks tried to make more "Friends" and influence millions of people, which resulted in cancellations for clones of the NBC hit.

This season, the emphasis again is on comedy as the six networks present a whopping 26 new sitcoms among the 39 series to be unveiled through October.

Presumably, the shows with familiar faces--those of Bill Cosby, Ted Danson, Michael J. Fox, Rhea Perlman, Gerald McRaney and Scott Bakula--will have an advantage in the annual Nielsen derby.

The smart money will be on defending champion NBC to win the ratings race, with CBS and ABC in a dogfight to reach the wire ahead of Fox, UPN and the WB.

Media analysts have pegged ABC's "Spin City" and NBC's "Suddenly Susan" as the season's sole sure-fire hits, an assessment made by virtue of where they are scheduled and not strictly their quality.

For the networks, whose audience continues to decline in the face of stiffer competition from cable and local stations, the key to survival is weekly programming that is engaging or entertaining.

So what about the level of entertainment in the class of '96? Onward!

SUNDAY / "The Steve Harvey Show" 8:30-9 p.m. WB. Premiered Aug. 25

The premise: As the star of his second sitcom, Harvey plays Steve Hightower, an inexperienced music teacher with unruly students. (Think of it as "Mr. Hightower's Opus.") An ex-member of an obscure pop group who was "almost a Commodore," Hightower sometimes gets lowbridged by his insouciant pupils. Student: "I like your suit. Where did you get it ... the '70s?"

The prospects: Dim, considering the competition of "Lois & Clark" and "Touched by an Angel." And by employing such a hackneyed premise, Harvey will find it difficult to distinguish this show from five others nearly like it, including his own network's "Nick Freno: Licensed Teacher." In other words, this is not the year to be a prime-time educator, which may be the biggest lesson of all to be learned by actors and networks alike.

****

"Life With Roger" 9:30-10 p.m. WB. Premiered Aug. 25

The premise: Good and bad things happen to Jason (Maurice Godin) on his wedding day after meeting Roger (Mike O'Malley), a stranger who's thinking of jumping off a bridge. The bad: His car is towed away and he's robbed at gunpoint. The good: He has second thoughts about marrying his longtime girlfriend--a pushy, hypoglycemic nag with no job, the sort of qualities Jason generously refers to as "little quirks."

The prospects: A sitcom whose life can go on only if viewers turn away from high-profile network movies or "The X-Files," which will be opened on Sundays beginning Oct. 27.

MONDAY / "Cosby" 8-8:30 p.m. CBS. Premieres Monday

The premise: In his latest comeback, Bill Cosby plays Hilton, a 60-year-old with too much time on his hands after being phased out of an airline job, much to the dismay of his loving wife ("Cosby Show" spouse Phylicia Rashad). Or as their friend (Madeline Kahn) casually points out: "A man in the house is like a piano in the kitchen. It's in the way."

The prospects: Speaking of pianos, this sitcom based on a British series is the key to a revamped CBS lineup in which it takes on three other comedies, four if you include the preposterous "Melrose Place." Cosby, who failed with his 1994 NBC venture "The Cosby Mysteries," has a lucrative two-year, 44-episode commitment from CBS, which is counting on him to energize the entire evening.

****

"7th Heaven" 8-9 p.m. WB. Premiered Aug. 26

The premise: Stephen Collins wears the white collar in this family drama as a small-town minister with five children. Catherine Hicks is his handy, wholesome wife. What about the youngsters? Matt, the oldest at 16, is smoking and skipping church. His 14-year-old sister Mary can shoot hoops but has yet to score as a kisser of boys. And 10-year-old Simon prays to God for a dog. "Dog is God spelled backwards," he tells his father, which hardly seems like a compelling reason to buy one.

The prospects: Collins, who starred in the short-lived 1982 Indiana Jones knockoff "Tales of the Gold Monkey," should say lots of prayers if he hopes to build a sizable congregation opposite the likes of "Cosby" or "Melrose Place." Without divine intervention, producers of the series could soon be hearing, "And now we lay thee down to sleep ..."

****

"Ink" 8:30-9 p.m. CBS. Premieres Monday

The premise: Stop the presses. Jack (Ted Danson) and Carrie (Mary Steenburgen, Danson's wife) are combative reporters at a New York newspaper. They are also newly divorced, and Carrie's sudden promotion to editor makes a tense situation even tougher.

The prospects: By pairing veterans Cosby and Danson in back-to-back comedies, CBS expects to cheer its older audience and take hold of a wide-open slot stocked with first-year sitcoms ("Mr. Rhodes" and "Malcolm & Eddie" are the others). As a variation on "The Front Page" and "His Girl Friday," "Ink" could use wittier repartee, but Danson's popularity makes him the man to beat.

****

"Mr. Rhodes" 8:30-9 p.m. NBC. Premieres Sept. 23

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