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TV's Fall Programming Lineup: Is This Their Final Answer?

Season * More 'Millionaire,' fewer news programs and series. Still, 32 prime-time comedies and dramas will debut.

May 20, 2000|BRIAN LOWRY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The year of "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire" has clearly left a mark on the coming television season, if not the giant crater writers and producers have feared since ABC's Regis Philbin-guided comet crashed into the prime-time landscape.

Granted, ABC will expand the quiz show to four hours in the fall, and the number of traditional sitcoms and dramas scheduled by the six broadcast networks has experienced a marginal decline.

Yet "Millionaire" remains the sole survivor in its genre, as a wave of hastily assembled imitators--NBC's "Twenty One," Fox's "Greed" and CBS' "Winning Lines"--were left on the sidelines.

Moreover, some of the hours sacrificed to "Millionaire" and unconventional programming alternatives--including wrestling's "WWF Smackdown!" and plans for a made-for-TV football league, the XFL, under the World Wrestling Federation's aegis--came at the expense of other low-cost formats that previously occupied prime-time slots, including so-called reality series and news magazines.

As it stands, prime-time news programs will be sliced from a dozen hours to nine, with the elder networks scheduling three apiece.

The one group of writers who can breathe easier might be TV critics, who won't have to spend as much time this summer watching new series that historically have a less than one-in-four chance of seeing their sophomore year.

All told, the broadcast networks will introduce 32 prime-time series in the fall, split evenly between comedies and dramas. That represents a departure from last fall, when the six networks--reacting to a glut of sitcoms--scheduled 22 new dramatic series and just 14 comedies, bringing more balance to their prime-time rosters.

Comebacks and Series Featuring Film Stars

In terms of programming trends, luring feature-film stars to prime time remains seductive, which explains "Geena" (Geena Davis' first TV role since the mid-1980s sitcom "Sara"), "Madigan Men" (starring Gabriel Byrne) and "The Bette Show," a CBS comedy casting Bette Midler as herself.

Comebacks by recognizable TV personalities also continue to be irresistible, underscored by Craig T. Nelson in "The District"; John Goodman in "Don't Ask"; Andre Braugher in "Gideon's Crossing"; Christine Baranski in "Welcome to New York"; "Wings" alumni Steven Weber and Tim Daly in the former's NBC sitcom and as the new Dr. Richard Kimble in CBS' revival of "The Fugitive," respectively; and Michael Richards as a bumbling detective in a comedy NBC ordered but will overhaul before allowing it to see the light of day.

In television, however, the real stars are often the writer-producers, and next season appears to be no exception. Fox hopes David E. Kelley can duplicate the success of "Ally McBeal" with his new series about teachers, "Boston Public," which will lead into that established hit. Darren Star, meanwhile, has parlayed his well-regarded HBO comedy "Sex and the City" into two new series: Fox's Wall Street drama "The $treet" and the WB sitcom "Grosse Pointe."

"Law & Order's" Dick Wolf is behind "Deadline," featuring another movie actor, Oliver Platt, as an investigative journalist. Aaron Spelling is also back in familiar territory with "Titans," a "Dynasty"-type soap set in "Beverly Hills, 90210's" old ZIP Code, only this time on NBC.

Big-screen filmmakers possess considerable allure in TV circles as well, even though many have acted as sort of absentee landlords on the programs that bear their names.

In unveiling its lineup to advertisers, Fox proudly announced a project from "Jurassic Park" and "ER" creator Michael Crichton that lacked a title or premise the network could discuss. The network did say "Titanic" director James Cameron is staunchly committed to "Dark Angel," a new sci-fi drama starring Jessica Alba as a genetically engineered superhuman living in a police state.

Cameron demonstrated his involvement, calling to take exception to figures published regarding the two-hour prototype that will launch the show. Contradicting a report in The Times, the director and his partner on the show, producer Charles Eglee, maintain the cost actually came in slightly below the targeted $10 million budget--still a huge sum for a made-for-TV production.

"We set out to prove a point, that we can work within certain parameters," Cameron said, adding, "Two hours in my world as a feature filmmaker costs you $100 million."

With "Millionaire" occupying so much real estate, ABC will begin the season with just four new programs, inspiring CBS Television President Leslie Moonves to not-so-subtly suggest the prime-time ratings leader has "banked their future on a single show."

The other networks have been more aggressive, encouraged by this year's "The West Wing" and "Judging Amy" that new dramas can indeed find an audience and heartened to see programs such as "ER" and "Law & Order" stay compelling and fresh to viewers in their later seasons. NBC clearly thought so, renewing both through at least 2004.

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