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A Glum Season Closes; Lessons for the Fall?

Television: The rules have suddenly changed, and next year's winners will be the networks that have done their homework.


The 1996-97 television season is drawing to a close, probably none too soon for the major networks, which can sift through the wreckage of dashed hopes while savoring the year's few bright spots.

Programmers must analyze those lessons as they prepare to announce next fall's lineups, with NBC to start off the annual chess game by unveiling its roster Monday and competitors to follow during the next 10 days.

The current season began with heightened expectations thanks to a slew of returning stars like Bill Cosby, Michael J. Fox, Ted Danson and Rhea Perlman, all associated with NBC programs that ruled prime time a decade ago, before the Fox network and other competitors muddied the TV landscape and gradually whittled away the network share of audience.

Despite those big names, however, ABC, CBS and NBC again experienced a precipitous overall ratings decline, down 8% from a year ago. For the first time, TV's "Big Three" are accounting for less than half (49%) of prime-time viewing, a drain partly attributable to Fox, whose strong results were buoyed by televising two high-rated sports events, the World Series and the Super Bowl.

Perhaps of most concern, the networks have gone through another season without a new series emerging as a clear-cut hit (except perhaps for Fox's "King of the Hill").

Struggling just to maintain current audience levels, the networks talk less these days about winning back lost viewers than of stemming the tide of future defections. Borrowing baseball terminology, there's also discussion of settling for singles and doubles instead of swinging wildly in search of home runs.

What else can be learned from the season that's ending, with an eye on how that will shape what happens next fall? Here are half a dozen lessons driven home during the last eight months.

Know thy audience: After a season in which everyone seemed to be bumping into everyone else with "Friends" clones trying to emulate NBC's success, the networks have sought to more clearly diversify their programming.

Pursuing such a strategy means that CBS is again appealing to an older, more rural audience with slices of Americana like "Touched by an Angel," and that Fox has embraced its youth-oriented roots as the home of "Beverly Hills, 90210" and "The Simpsons."

"I wanted to re-identify the brand of Fox," said Fox Entertainment Group President Peter Roth, who took that job in September. "I wanted to make sure it was crystal-clear. . . . The key is to focus on your strengths."

"We actually have a philosophy at this network about who we are trying to reach," said Jamie Kellner, chief executive of the WB network, which has used its animated frog mascot to help push an image of "the place where American families can watch television together."

In contrast, a rival executive called ABC, which has suffered the steepest drop this year, "schizophrenic," trying to be a family network some places, hip and cutting-edge in others.

Big stars can lure viewers back, but not necessarily for long: Although "Cosby" and Michael J. Fox's "Spin City" opened with strong ratings, they quickly cooled before settling into mid-range ruts, with solid but not quite hit numbers. Although both have been renewed (and Danson's CBS comedy "Ink" may be), neither has proved to be the savior that preseason hype may have led some to anticipate.

Two other highly touted shows--NBC's "Suddenly Susan," starring Brooke Shields, and Fox's "Millennium," with Lance Henriksen--will also be back. The latter declined after a promising start, while the former benefited from the safe haven of NBC's "Must See TV" Thursday night lineup.

The magnitude and volume of stars may have been anomalous, but CBS Entertainment President Leslie Moonves maintains that programmers will keep turning to such performers in seeking to capture viewers.

"We forget people are stars for a reason," he said. "It's not just because they have a name. It's because they have a talent that people want to see."

There's no substitute for existing hits: NBC is the only network that's been regularly able to get people to sample its new series, thanks to the launching pad provided by sandwiching such shows between "Friends," "Seinfeld" and "ER."

Small wonder that the NBC comedies to air after "Seinfeld" ("Suddenly Susan," "The Naked Truth" and "Fired Up") are the year's highest-rated new shows. Of course, that's also no assurance of success once such programs venture elsewhere, demonstrated by the dismal results on Wednesdays for "The Single Guy."

Having such hits nevertheless offers a major advantage in getting people to sample new programs, compared to the Catch-22 situation facing ABC: Because fewer people are watching the network, its on-air promos reach fewer eyeballs, making it difficult to attract new viewers.

CBS will have one advantage next season by airing the Winter Olympics--a sure-fire ratings draw--in February. The network will hold a few new programs to premiere after that event.

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