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'Ellen'--Is She or Isn't She?

(Getting Renewed, That Is)


Almost as fast as a closet door can swing open, "Ellen" has gone from being a source of annoyance for beleaguered ABC to a potential beacon of hope.

Viewing of the program remained high in its first telecast after the much-ballyhooed hour in which the lead character came out as a lesbian, and while the network has yet to officially renew the series, sources say they'd be stunned if the show isn't brought back for a fifth season.

In fact, the Ellen DeGeneres comedy could become a key component of ABC's schedule. Sources say one scenario has the network moving "The Drew Carey Show" from 9 p.m. to 8 p.m. on Wednesdays in September, with "Ellen" assuming its time slot.

Networks usually schedule their strongest comedies at 8 p.m. and 9 p.m., hoping the audience they attract will flow into the programs between them. NBC successfully uses this strategy with "Friends," "Seinfeld" and "ER," creating what are known as "hammocks" to elevate viewing of the shows slotted at the half-hour.

ABC is losing nearly all its established 8 p.m. programs after this season, creating a dire need for such anchors. In addition to the long-running comedies "Roseanne" and "Coach," each in its final year, CBS has acquired "Family Matters"--which opens ABC's Friday lineup--for next season and has an option to pick up the Suzanne Somers comedy "Step by Step."

Because of its subject matter, ABC no longer feels "Ellen" (rated TV-14 the past two weeks, urging parental guidance for children under 14) can lead off a night, when more kids are apt to be watching television. The program was scheduled at 8 p.m. last fall but came up on the short end of the ratings versus CBS' "The Nanny."

A final decision on where to schedule "Ellen" may hinge on its performance next week. This week's episode actually attracted more viewers (nearly 18 million) than the popular "Drew Carey" in the previous half-hour--the first time that's happened all season.

Industry sources still question whether "Ellen's" ratings will slide back toward mediocrity. The most recent episode, they note, may have benefited from residual curiosity, and the show did lose half of the huge audience that tuned in the week before.

"Next week will tell the tale," said one TV executive, referring to the season finale, in which the character deals with her disapproving boss.

Yet even if "Ellen's" ratings decline further, leveling off near this week's level would be a victory for ABC. In addition, Disney, which owns ABC, also produces the program and thus has a financial interest in its future. (Repeat rights have been sold to the Lifetime cable network, another studio property.)

The situation represents an intriguing turnaround. After months in which executives privately viewed "Ellen" as a marginally rated program generating a disproportionate amount of grief--enduring constant questioning about when and if the character would come out--the series has become a possible bright spot.

Much of that has to do with the network's sharp ratings decline this season, which will likely compel ABC to make lineup changes affecting every night of the week. Distractions also reach beyond the schedule, including rumors of management turmoil and a lawsuit against Disney filed by the producers of its top-rated comedy, "Home Improvement." They charged that because the studio, which shares ownership of the series with them, also owns the network, it was making a "sweetheart" renewal deal.

Talk of a management shake-up went public earlier this week when two magazines ran with speculation that ABC Entertainment President Jamie Tarses might be given a new boss in Geraldine Laybourne, the former Nickelodeon executive who oversees Disney's cable networks.

ABC issued quick denials, but the network's parent company, Disney, seemed to damage its credibility with the news media when President Michael Ovitz left the studio--a persistent rumor that later proved true despite protestations to the contrary.

The timing of the rumors is inopportune, with ABC scheduled to present next season's prime-time lineup to advertisers May 19. The network's annual meeting with its affiliates will be held two weeks later.

Meanwhile, one mini-drama related to the "Ellen" plot line continues. WBMA in Birmingham, Ala.--the only ABC station not to air the coming-out episode--didn't run the program again this week. The station's general manager couldn't be reached for comment but initially cited concerns about family-viewing standards, saying that future episodes would be evaluated individually.

A total of 219 stations did broadcast Wednesday's episode, reaching 99% of homes with television in the United States.

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