The plunge to prime time

By Published on .

Most Popular

The job of television programmers have never been easy. Gauging the whims of a fickle and easily distracted viewing public can be as scientific a process as reading tea leaves. But in the last decade, anxiety levels at the Big Three networks have been rising as audiences have steadily slipped away, seduced by the charms of cable, home video rentals, and the Internet. The result has been a sharp change of focus for the men and women who set the TV schedules. Whereas once their mission was to find the next monster hit - one that would sweep the country and change the culture - now the critical factor is demographic targeting.

In the monster-hit era, success was easy to measure. Any show that ranked in the Nielsen Top Ten was a hit. Today, shows like Ally McBeal and Felicity - 25th and 132nd in last year's Nielsen ratings, respectively - are the serious money-makers because they can deliver a market. The WB's Felicity, which debuted last year, ranked fourth in concentration of females between 12 and 24. So advertisers like BiorA, Clearasil, and Tampax will pay big bucks for time on the show.

Conversely, some shows that score high in the ratings (including much of CBS's line-up) don't deliver the young, hip, urban audience that many advertisers desire. As David Marans, senior partner at J. Walter Thompson, puts it, "No one gives a crap in the ad business about Touched by an Angel [the No. 8 rated show last season]. It's because we're snobs."

He may be right. Programs that play well in the hinterlands suffer at the hands of young, hipster, New York City media buyers. But there are objective reasons, too: Younger viewers are considered more willing to spend, to try new products, and to switch brands more readily. Also, they watch less TV than older viewers, so the moments that they do spend tuning in are more valuable still. Or so the theory goes. Eighteen of the 39 shows debuting on the six broadcast nets this season look at the world through youth-tinted glasses.

Can prime time deliver? We asked trend watchers, media buyers, the shows' creators, and the networks themselves to deconstruct the demos of seven new fall shows.

Segregation is back in the prime-time schedule. Shows like The Jeffersons and The Cosby Show used to draw big numbers among white and black viewers. Today, white viewers watch shows starring whites, and black viewers watch shows starring blacks. According to Nielsen Media Research, in the 1997-98 season, the top-rated TV show in white households (Seinfeld) ranked 50th in African American homes, and the No. 1 show in black households (Between Brothers) ranked 112th among whites. This year the four largest networks have all but abandoned the black audience: Not one show on CBS, NBC, ABC, and Fox this fall has more than one or two black characters, and none are leads. Only UPN and the WB, the newest nets, have made an effort; the WB has devoted its Friday night schedule to black shows, and UPN has done the same on Monday.

Jaleel White (Urkel of Family Matters) returns to prime time on UPN in Grown Ups as Calvin Frazier, a striving young executive at a corrugated-box company who dreams of bigger things, like a run for the Senate. Though this half-hour sitcom is flanked on the schedule by three all-black shows - Moesha, The Parkers (a new Moesha spin-off), and Malcolm & Eddie - its cast is racially mixed, with Dave Ruby as Gordon, Calvin's white best friend, and Marissa Ribisi as Shari, Gordon's hot-tempered wife.

Grown Ups could easily appeal to a white audience but, given its time slot - opposite Ally McBeal on Fox, Law and Order on NBC, and Everybody Loves Raymond on CBS - that's not likely to happen. As JWT's Marans explains, "The ghettoism of Monday night means that the [white] audience that might appreciate a show like Grown Ups won't even consider it, no matter how deserving or integrated it is."

LaTanya Junior, media director for marketing communications company Stedman Graham, predicts it won't fly with a black audience, either. "We call it drive-by targeting," says Junior, who watched the pilot with 15 black (and one white) colleagues. "I'm sure they'll get high numbers for the first week, but I can see a drastic drop-off. It had nothing to make me come back and watch it. [Jaleel White's character] did nothing that African Americans are doing in this country."

The show will get lost in the new racial gerrymandering of prime time. Although every producer is acutely aware of television's new demographic urgency, it's considered gauche to admit it. So when Edward Zwick, the creator of thirtysomething (one of television's first demographically pure hits) talks about his new hour-long melodrama, Once and Again, he claims to be aiming at every single American. "I don't expect that it's going to have a particular age bias. I hope not," he says. "I'm sure the network has done testing of various kinds, but I've not asked to see it, and I don't particularly care."

Perhaps, then, it just comes naturally to Zwick. Once and Again includes several elements that will appeal to upscale women aged 18 to 49. The show is beautifully shot and features the same sort of earthy, acoustic-guitar background music as thirtysomething. The lead characters, played by Sela Ward, from the NBC drama Sisters, and Bill Campbell, from the movie The Rocketeer, are each 40, divorced, good-looking, and love to talk about themselves - not only at dinner, with cell phones resting on the table, but also in black-and-white, therapy-style confessionals interspersed between scenes. "I just don't know where I fit in my own life anymore," says Ward's character, "and I'm scared."

Laurie Ashcraft, a partner at Nickles & Ashcraft, a trend-analysis company, is dubious. The relentless focus on the travails of divorce will appeal to fiftysomethings, she says, but not to viewers at the other end of the baby boom. "Today's 35-year-olds are much less divorce-focused than older boomers," she says. "The only way to succeed is to highlight the romance aspect heavily; 35-year-olds are romance-relationship focused."

Cannily, the show also features a full complement of attractive teenage actors, as the divorced couple's offspring. According to Marian Salzman, worldwide director at Young & Rubican's Brand Futures Group, the show's depiction of weakening boundaries and close relationships between generations is "on trend."

"Kids now act like grown ups used to, and grown ups act like teenagers," says Salzman. "Because today's teens have grown up in a world where they've been protected from nothing, kids are becoming more conservative and far more pragmatic, while boomers tend to be more reckless."

She also thinks the confessional scenes will appeal to the target audience. "We've reached a point where people love to talk about their own therapy. That's going to be really fashionable for the young boomer audience. They're looking for a place to focus and see themselves."

When Fox approached Clyde Phillips, creator of Parker Lewis Can't Lose and Suddenly Susan, the execs knew exactly what they wanted: an "aggressively contemporary look at an American family."

What they got is Get Real, a hip, irreverent, hour-long comedy-drama that puts a slightly positive twist on a painfully realistic theme: unhappy families. The Green family, which includes three kids, their parents, and a recently widowed grandmother, struggles through an unending series of crises - fender-benders, opposite-sex sleepovers, a refusal to go to college - all dealt with in comic fashion. The show uses Ally McBeal-esque fantasy sequences and cleverly breaks the fourth wall (a gimmick in at least three other fall shows), with characters speaking directly to the camera.

Like Zwick, Phillips says he's going for a broad audience. "We want to be able to take care of both sides of the family balance beam," he says. In test screenings, audiences responded well to the jokes, but also to a sex scene (between the parents) and more dramatic moments. "The dials went up when the boobs came on," Phillips says. "But the dial stayed up when the mom and dad were fighting."

According to Laurie Ashcraft, the Green's three-generation span is promising. "The concept of extended family appeals to younger people and reflects how they see families today," she says. "Showing generational conflicts with teens on parental control versus independence, teenage anger, and teenage sex is also in line" with current trends. But Anne Marshall, co-founder of WomanTrend, thinks the producers disregard the fine line between how much people want to hear and see. "Great successes like Ally McBeal are total escapism," says Marshall. "For someone to turn to the camera and chat - unless it's Jerry Seinfeld - forget it."

Still, with characters in every generation and lots of sex, Get Real should have broad appeal. One of the WB's biggest shows last year was Charmed, the black-magic-woman drama starring Shannen Doherty, Holly Marie Combs, and Alyssa Milano that scored well in its Sunday night time slot. This fall, Charmed moves to Thursday night at 9:00, with Popular as its lead-in. This hour-long dramedy is set in suburban Jacqueline Kennedy High, where the lives of two rival teen girls (one a cheerleader, one a groovy, Alanis Morrisette type) become intertwined when their parents start dating each other.

But critics say the show's narrow focus on high school cliques may result in a too-narrow audience. "The driving concept of the show - the need to `fit in' - isn't compelling enough to be a hit with young viewers," says Laurie Ashcraft. According to her company's data, only 25 percent of young viewers feel strongly concerned about what others think of them.

Brand Futures' Salzman agrees that things look grim for Popular, but for a different reason: Shows set in high school rarely appeal to high-school-age viewers. "Kids watch TV with a four- or five-year aspiration," she says. In other words, 16-year-olds want to watch shows about 21-year-olds; the only people who want to watch 15-year-old high school students are 10 and under. "[Anxiety about] who your parents are dating is more like an 11-year-old plotline. It's only until you're about 13 or 14 that stories about who your parents are dating really matter to you," Salzman adds.

In any event, it will be a struggle for Popular to get a foothold against NBC's Friends, the hottest comedy on TV. Also cluttering the time slot: Fox's Manchester Prep, a copycat high-school drama competing for the same 12-to-24 demo.

Amid the stampede for the youth demo by most networks, CBS has stood firm in its stodgy ways, courting the Centrum Silver set with such offerings as Touched by an Angel, Diagnosis Murder, and Kids Say the Darndest Things, a show that stars the very young but is watched by the very old.

This fall, the network is edging toward a somewhat younger market with Love & Money, an Upstairs, Downstairs-style sitcom about a romance between the working-class superintendent of an Upper East Side Manhattan apartment building and the daughter of the wealthiest tenants. Starring veteran actors David Ogden Stiers, Swoosie Kurtz, and Brian Doyle Murray, Love & Money is the network's hope to lure a younger block without alienating its mature demographic.

CBS has tried desperately to convince advertisers that their graying audience (average age: 51) is just as valuable as the teenyboppers. "Fifty-year-olds today are younger, in terms of their lifestyle, than 50-year-olds were 30 years ago," says Dave Poltrack, CBS's executive vice president of research and planning. "Today's 50-year-olds are healthier, more likely to be working, and more active at a later age - particularly baby boomers, who have lived in uninterrupted prosperity. College is paid for, they're at peak earning capacity, and they have the most discretionary money to spend."

But do 25-year-olds really want to watch David Ogden Stiers and Swoosie Kurtz banter? Love & Money wants to have it both ways, and the strain shows on the screen. The attempt to skew younger might work overall, but the show's ideal demographic, women over 35, is already well-served on Friday nights by the other networks, specifically NBC's surprise mid-season replacement hit, Providence.

According to Laura Caraccioli-Davis of Starcom Worldwide, the show won't even perform as well as Candid Camera did in the same spot last year. "It's our pick as the first show to be cancelled on CBS this fall, in spite of a strong supporting cast," she says.

A quick look at VH1's demographics underscores the problem the traditional networks face. Advertisers want narrowly focused audiences, and cable channels have them: 86 percent of VH1's audience is between 18 and 49, and it has the highest percentage of viewers earning more than $75,000 a year, among all basic cable networks. In addition, cable channels can make shows cheaply and run them over and over, without carrying development costs.

With Random Play, a sophisticated sketch-comedy show, VH1 is making a move from music videos and concert performances to a programming approach that experiments with other television formats. Though music videos will still make up 40 percent of its air time, "the real question is at what point we are perceived as getting too far from the music," says Jeff Gaspin, VH1's executive vice president of programming and production.

"It's an interesting strategy," says Laura Caraccioli-Davis. "VH1 is everybody's guilty pleasure and it gets a lot of water-cooler talk." Brand Futures' Salzman agrees: "VH1 understands that there needs to be a domain for people over the age of 25 who are still music junkies, for people a little too young for Woodstock and a little too old for the temple of MTV."

Random Play takes satirical aim at the music biz with sketches that include a spoof of The Odd Couple called The Oasis Couple, about rocker brothers Noel and Liam Gallagher living together after their wives throw them out, and Hidden Moments with John and Yoko, in which the couple shop for groceries, play ring-and-run in the Dakota, and enjoy a rousing game of Battleship.

But the TV battlefield is strewn with the corpses of "smart" sketch shows, like MTV's The State and Comedy Central's Exit 57. What succeeds is dumb-guy fare like Fox's MAD TV and NBC's lame dinosaur, Saturday Night Live. "It takes the visionaries and the guys with the guts to say `we want to try this genre,'" says WomanTrend's Marshall. "But eventually, if it desn't become a commercial success, it's going to get cut."

This hour-long drama, produced by ER creator John Wells, is aimed at a well-mapped audience. They love shows about doctors (ER), police (NYPD Blue), and paramedics (Rescue 911), NBC reasons, so they're sure to love a show about all three. Set in New York City, Third Watch covers the on- and off-duty lives of night-shift paramedics, firefighters, and cops. "It's a single-life adventure fantasy," says Gar Roper, president of Gar Roper Associates. "Even if I'm 50 years old and married, I stop being 50 years old and married when I watch it."

It's reported to be the most expensive first-year show ever made, and it certainly has a good pedigree. The only problem may be its time slot: It feels like a 10:00 p.m. drama, but it's airing Sunday at 8:00. "Whether viewers are going to sit down and watch something this intense at 8:00 is to be determined," says Mike Greco, manager of broadcast research at BBDO. Obviously, NBC's programmers think there's an underserved audience at that hour: men. CBS has the 50-plus crowd with Touched by An Angel, ABC has the families with the Disney movie, Fox has the boys with The Simpsons and Futurama, WB has the younger women with Felicity.

"They might get the 18-to-49," says Brad Adgate, senior vice president of corporate research at Horizon Media. "But it depends on how strong Dateline [on NBC at 7:00] is versus 60 Minutes [on CBS at 7:00] as a lead." Laurie Ashcraft sees the show's prospects generationally: "Baby boomers like extreme emotional situations with high activity," she says. "It takes the edge off the perception of being older."

In this article: