ABC holds high cards, but each net is vulnerable

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For competing network programmers, ABC-TV's heavyweight "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire" will be acting like a tow truck next year -- carrying away stalled shows that can't seem to get moving.

Perhaps it's no coincidence New York-produced "Millionaire" airs on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Sundays -- which happen to be days where "alternate-side street parking rules" are in effect in New York, and where scofflaws' cars are towed for failing to adhere to the rules.

"Millionaire" could end up towing off a lot of shows next year. Network programmers will need to move faster -- or get timely jump-starts. Right now, "Millionaire" has given ABC some valuable numbers going into next season.

In total households, ABC, through first quarter 2000, posted a 9.3 rating and 15 share, according to Nielsen Media Research.

While ABC pulled off the ratings' year upset this year, it was no clean sweep. Many networks' nightly wins were earned by the slightest of margins. Advertising Age examined the networks' schedules and surveyed programming analysts, asking where each network needs improvement.

NBC

NBC is putting its eggs where all viewers know its strength -- on Thursday night.

Recently, NBC inked a deal for a three-year extension for "ER" and will probably give its longtime underpaid "Friends" stars a salary increase, as well. NBC has "no choice but to continue because they haven't grown another sitcom yet," says Helen Katz, senior VP-director of strategic resources for Zenith Media Services, New York. "New shows on that night keep failing." She cites "Jesse" and "Stark Raving Mad" as shows that didn't fulfill their promise.

Two of NBC's biggest problems are Sunday and Monday, says Steve Sternberg, senior VP-director of program research at TN Media, New York, who guesses NBC will put in some sitcoms that night -- as many as four. NBC still hasn't been "able to launch any major sitcom hit since `Frasier,' " he says.

NBC will then attempt something completely different, scheduling WWF's new XFL football league. The big question among program executives is whether WWF's young male audience will stay home on Saturday nights.

ABC

ABC seems to have it all, but everyone knows it can't rely on "Millionaire" for the entire season.

"ABC needs a sitcom," says Bill Carroll, VP-director of programming for Katz Television Group, a New York-based TV sales rep. ABC hasn't launched a sitcom since "Dharma and Greg," in 1997, says Mr. Carroll. He also notes the network's other sitcom star, Drew Carey, is seemingly spread too thin. Besides his own sitcom, Mr. Carey hosts "Whose Line Is It Anyway?" and does movie specials such as "Geppetto."

Fridays remain a problem, says Ms. Katz. "The older programs aren't holding."

Initially, when "Millionaire" hit late last year, ABC programming executives were concerned the show wasn't providing a strong rating lead-in for its existing programs.

But, according to Mr. Sternberg, five of ABC's returning shows have improved ratings: "The Practice," "NYPD Blue," "Dharma & Greg," "ABC Monday Movie" and "Sports Night."

Programming analysts also believe ABC will continue to use "Millionaire" as a stopgap when shows fails.

CBS

CBS, analysts point out, again needs to attract young viewers. "The network is still older than it wants to be," says Mr. Sternberg. "It will try to get a bit young next season, correctly believing that it's important to get households first and focus on the demographics gradually."

CBS may have started this process this past season, bringing aboard "Family Law" and "Judging Amy," two hourlong dramas that grabbed some younger viewers.

Mondays are solid with "The King of Queens" and "Everyone Loves Raymond." Mr. Carroll speculates CBS could keep "Ladies Man" in spite of losing some of "Queens" lead-in.

Tuesdays with "JAG," "60 Minutes II" and "Judging Amy" made big gains. CBS' best night is Saturday with "Martial Law" and "Walker, Texas Ranger."

CBS has trouble on Thursdays -- "Diagnosis Murder," "Chicago Hope" and "48 Hours" can't go head-to-head against either ABC or NBC. Considering the older guest stars that appear on that night's CBS programming, such as James Garner on "Chicago Hope," Mr. Carroll calls Thursdays "I-can't-believe-they-are-still-alive night."

Fox

After a plainly bad year -- losing 13% in overall household ratings -- Fox has much rebuilding to do, especially in getting back into the adults 18-49 race.

With longtime hour drama stalwarts "Party of Five" and "Beverly Hills 90210" gone from the schedule, analysts believe this could be an even tougher year. Now, Fox will be looking for new blood for multiple time slots on multiple nights -- Tuesdays, Wednesdays, Thursdays and Fridays.

Still, this season witnessed an certain amount of irony for Fox. Throughout the season, every programming analyst has bemoaned the dearth of new sitcoms. Then, when critics were ready to write off Fox completely, the network perked up with successful launches of "Malcolm in the Middle" and "Titus."

"Doug Herzog [former president of Fox Entertainment] finally got it right. They are his shows," says Mr. Carroll. " `That '70s Show,' `Malcolm' and `Titus' will be the building blocks to relaunch the network."

Fox's only strong night is Sundays, with "The Simpsons," "Malcolm" and "X-Files" producing solid ratings. But now there are rumors Fox might move "Malcolm" to launch another night. That might not be a good idea, according to some programming executives.

"I don't think they can afford the risk to upset Sundays," says Ms. Katz. "They need to have one strong night."

Fox has a number of comedies in development (see story on Page S-30), including "Don't Ask" with John Goodman and "Normal People" with Tori Spelling.

Down the road, Fox will have problems with its other longtime dramas. This will be the last season of "X-Files," and "Ally McBeal" will be losing several of its cast members next year.

The WB

The network was the darling of the media last year. Now the press is not so charmed.

WB put a lot of faith in "Felicity," figuring it could do no wrong. Programming analysts say WB viewed "Felicity" as Fox views "Ally McBeal" -- a strong player that could be moved around the schedule if needed.

But after its first season on Wednesdays, "Felicity" ran into trouble when it moved to Sundays this season, and it took a tumble.

The bad news doesn't stop there.

"All three of the network's best prospects to return next year -- `Angel,' `Roswell' and `Popular' -- are performing below `Felicity's' rating of last season [3.3]," notes Mr. Sternberg.

WB won't expand in Saturday night until it takes care of existing problems, which pleases analysts.

For the upcoming season, it has already ordered three drama pilots from the Family Friendly Programming Initiative, a consortium of advertisers that fund programs: "Finally Home," "Gilmore Girls" and an untitled third show starring Virginia Madsen.

Still, the WB wants to add sitcoms and could break up its Monday-to-Thursday string of back-to-back hours with at least one big night of comedies.

Pax

Though the young Pax network has 80% coverage and transmits on broadcasting stations, some media buyers consider Pax on the same level as mid-size cable networks. Pax prime time programs, like some cable outlets, are targeting family audiences and running old network reruns. Its key Monday-to-Friday programming is "Diagnosis: Murder" from 10 to 11 p.m. and "Touch By An Angel,"' from 9 to 10 p.m.

Good news for the network is that its season-to-date ratings numbers are up a bit, to a 0.5 Nielsen rating from a 0.4, for the same 1999 period.

This network's goals should be simple, say agency executives. It needs "better coverage as well as original programming," says Brad Adgate, senior VP-director of audience research for Horizon Media, New York.

UPN

"WWF Smackdown!" put UPN on the map; it also gave the network a direction -- young men. The show's umbrella effect has taken root.

Four of its five nights improved in 1999-00 over 1998-99. But, Mr. Sternberg says, all of its returning shows declined except for "Malcolm & Eddie." New series, such as "The Parkers" and "Grown Ups," performed better than last year's efforts.

Still, there is room for improvement. On Mondays, "Moesha" and "The Parkers" will return. They should have company with the multi-ethnic comedy "Off the Hook," "Born in the USA" or possibly "Girlfriends," which is a black "Sex in the City," says Mr. Sternberg.

During initial presentations to advertisers, UPN hinted about expanding out of a newly found niche, in which the network targets women aged 12-34. Mr. Sternberg says UPN believes women will more easily follow men to programming than the other way around.

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