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3 New ABC Shows Post Strong Premiere Results

TV: Network executives are pleased as '8 Simple Rules' and 'Life With Bonnie' win their time slots. The programs faced mostly reruns.

September 19, 2002|BRIAN LOWRY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

After a stretch in which precious little has gone right for ABC, executives at the Walt Disney Co.-owned network expressed relief Wednesday after registering strong Tuesday night results with premieres of three series.

The network's sitcoms "8 Simple Rules for Dating My Teenage Daughter," starring John Ritter, and "Life With Bonnie," featuring Bonnie Hunt, averaged 17.3 million and 16.1 million viewers, respectively--easily winning their time slots both in overall viewing and among adults ages 18 to 49, the key demographic to advertisers.

Nielsen Media Research data showed that the Ritter show delivered ABC's highest season premiere rating for that half-hour since "Roseanne" was scheduled there in 1996.

A preview of the interactive mystery "Push, Nevada" averaged 12 million viewers, though the audience did drop through the hour. The series, whose producers include actor Ben Affleck, premieres in its regular time slot tonight, also getting a jump on the new television season that officially begins next week.

"That was one hurdle we had to get over--to demonstrate that we could open these new shows," said ABC Entertainment President Susan Lyne, who had picked "8 Simple Rules" as the network's program with the best chance of succeeding this season.

Sluggish results at ABC have become a very public symbol of Disney's perceived shortcomings and its lagging stock price. Disney executives have said that they view turning around the network a top priority.

Competitors were quick to point out that ABC threw an expensive promotional barrage behind the three series and that they largely faced reruns, although "8 Simple Rules" went head to head with--and handily surpassed--the season premiere of an established series on News Corp.'s Fox network, "That '70s Show."

ABC's Tuesday ratings are likely to decline once NBC, a unit of General Electric Co., and Viacom Inc.-owned CBS join the fray with original programs next week. "Life With Bonnie," for example, will regularly face NBC's long-running hit "Frasier," and "Push, Nevada" goes into one of television's most challenging time periods, versus CBS' "CSI: Crime Scene Investigation" and NBC's "Will & Grace."

Still, given how low ABC's ratings dipped over the summer--down more than 20% versus last year, largely because of the absence of "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire"--media analysts have questioned whether the network was attracting enough viewers to adequately promote its shows.

John Rash, senior vice president and director of broadcast negotiations at Campbell Mithun Esty, a Minneapolis-based advertising agency, said that although "one night does not a season make," Tuesday's results indicate that Disney's marketing machine "can make Americans aware of any cultural product."

The question now, advertisers say, is how many viewers return in later weeks.

"Tuesday is the building block for their network. They really need it to work," said Laura Caraccioli, vice president and director at Starcom Entertainment, a Chicago-based media services company. "It's just too early to tell."

Viewers "get all hyped up to watch that first show," said Tom DeCabia, executive vice president of PHD-USA, which buys commercial time for advertisers. "But we want to see if the audience comes back a second time. That tells it all."

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Times staff writer Meg James contributed to this report.

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