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On Their Own

The Ride on 'Seinfeld's' Coattails Is Over for NBC's Monday Night Ladies


NBC calls them "Ladies of Monday Night." Some have more cryptically dubbed them Jerry's kids, or "Must She-TV." Whatever the name, it's time to see if a quartet of programs that have ridden "Seinfeld's" coattails have any pulling power on their own.

Over the past two years, NBC nurtured four comedies--"Caroline in the City," "Suddenly Susan," "The Naked Truth" and "Fired Up"--in the half-hour between "Seinfeld" and "ER," a piece of prime-time real estate that virtually assures the occupant a bigger audience than nearly anything else on television.

Beginning tonight, as the network launches a sitcom block consisting of those series, NBC will learn if viewers were really watching or merely leaving the set on while they paid bills and put the kids to bed.

Fred Barron, who with partner Marco Pennette produces "Caroline in the City" as well as the new NBC comedy "Union Square," acknowledged that following "Seinfeld" has drawbacks as well as advantages.

"The slot's a curse and a blessing," he said. "You know you'll get the audience, and you know you'll get a bunch of people and critics saying you don't deserve it."


The stakes are high for NBC. If the new Monday lineup doesn't succeed, "Seinfeld" (and, for that matter, the network's other veteran favorites, "Frasier" and "Mad About You") will have grown two years older without establishing clear heirs, potentially bringing the top-rated network closer to the ratings terrain of mere mortals.

Television has always tried to use such time periods as a platform to introduce new programs. ABC rolled out "Home Improvement" between "Full House" and "Roseanne," then two of prime-time's most popular series. CBS launched "Cybill" behind "Murphy Brown," and NBC inaugurated "Frasier" after "Seinfeld."

If networks fail to develop new hits to supplant aging ones, the result is usually a ratings slide--just as NBC fell from first to third place in the early 1990s, when "A Different World" and "Wings" proved pallid successors to the programs that helped give them birth, "The Cosby Show" and "Cheers," respectively.

NBC Entertainment President Warren Littlefield downplayed the idea that NBC will have squandered two years' worth of "Seinfeld's" lofty Nielsen orbit if these satellite shows don't work. He called the Monday-night strategy "a tribute to the ability to launch [new shows] behind 'Seinfeld,' and we're just trying to take full advantage of it."

The network will offer comedies from 8-10 p.m. Monday through Thursday, and an unprecedented 18 sitcoms over the entire week. ABC has the next highest sitcom tally, with a dozen scheduled, and some within the industry have questioned whether NBC might be spreading its troops too thin.

In addition, several critics have disparaged the similarity of NBC's series. The Monday sitcoms all feature attractive female leads (Brooke Shields, Sharon Lawrence, Lea Thompson and Tea Leoni) playing single characters in urban settings, working in media-oriented jobs. As NBC prepared to announce its schedule last year, those unsure how the shows would be ordered referred to the night as one big show entitled "Caroline, Get Fired Up If You're Suddenly Naked in the City."

Michael Saltzman, who took over this year as executive producer on "The Naked Truth," which stars Leoni, said that in again revising the show he consciously tried to differentiate it from similarly themed programs on NBC, which also include Tuesday night's "NewsRadio" and "Just Shoot Me."

"I felt it was imperative to distinguish ourselves from the other media-based comedies," noted Saltzman, whose other goal was to establish a strong ensemble cast behind Leoni.

NBC has relaxed somewhat regarding a possible backlash toward "The Naked Truth"--which is set at a tabloid newspaper--in the wake of Princess Diana's death. According to Saltzman, the workplace provides a colorful backdrop and was never meant to be the show's focus.

"I felt we were doing nothing that in any way could be deemed offensive, even before the tragedy occurred," he said.

NBC has an advantage touting its shows on other nights because of the millions who tune in Tuesday and Thursday for "Mad About You," "Frasier," "Friends" and "Seinfeld." Littlefield, meanwhile, rejects the notion that the Monday shows may be held to a higher standard because of their "Must-See TV" pedigree, insisting that such second-guessing is more characteristic of critics than viewers.

While no one expects the Monday lineup to attract the same kind of audience those shows did Thursday, the network sees an opportunity to score on a more modest level. CBS' comedies tend to attract an older audience, and "Cosby," "Everybody Loves Raymond" and the latest Bob Newhart vehicle, "George & Leo," feature male leads, making "Cybill" an island of femininity. ABC runs "Monday Night Football," which has historically skewed heavily toward men.

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