EXPECTED HITS ARE SPARSE IN THE FALL TV LINEUP;'COSBY,' TWO OTHERS ARE PREDICTED TO BE BIG WINNERS

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Bill Cosby's newest sitcom should be a clear hit in the 1996-97 TV season, according to Advertising Age's annual survey of new shows.

Ad agencies and media independents surveyed also picked NBC's "Suddenly Susan," starring Brooke Shields, and ABC's "Spin City," with Mi-chael J. Fox, as hits. The big share numbers these two shows are predicted to get have as much to do with their time slots as with their star power. "Suddenly Susan" will follow "Seinfeld" on Thursdays, while "Spin City" follows "Home Improvement" on Tuesdays.

CHALLENGE FOR `COSBY'

"Cosby" will anchor CBS' Monday night lineup without any national lead-in and will have to make it on the merits of the show. Mr. Cosby himself was a hit at CBS' recent upfront presentation to advertisers in Carnegie Hall, and the clips from the show-a U.S. version of the British TV hit "One Foot in the Grave"-got big laughs from the assemblage.

"I was concerned that he was over-the-hill-nobody watched his syndicated show [`You Bet Your Life']," said one agency media executive. "But judging from the clips, I think it's a real winner."

The shows starring Messrs. Cosby and Fox and Ms. Shields are the only ones picked as likely hits from a field of 40 new shows. By comparison, 12 shows were labeled as likely misses. While agency media executives seem to be of one mind about the star-powered sitcoms, the definition of a hit can be a moving target.

Some media executives, for example, called the CBS replacement series "Nash Bridges" a hit during this past season. It aired six times and pulled in a 16 share, markedly better than the programs CBS had aired in the same time slot. But a 16 share was the average for a prime-time series last season and would not have placed "Nash Bridges" in the top 20.

DIFFERING STANDARDS

Agencies also define a hit on Fox differently than on ABC, CBS or NBC.

"On the big three networks, we give a show passing grades if it wins its time period with at least an 18 share," said Steve Sternberg, senior partner of media resources at BJK&E Media Group, New York.

A Fox show gets a passing mark with a 13 share if it comes in at least second in its time period. Mr. Sternberg also requires that a show retain at least 80% of its lead-in audience before he'll call it a hit.

While new shows on WB and UPN are predicted to draw very small shares, advertisers like them because they can make relatively inexpensive target buys on the shows. For example, both networks have a number of new series targeted to African-Americans, a market the Big 3, for the most part, appear to ignore. One show from a respected producer expected to flop is Steven Bochco's "Public Morals," a Wednesday comedy on CBS. And CBS' "Moloney" is seen as a likely flop, despite the star power of Peter Strauss, because it is going up against "Seinfeld."

Three returning shows have also generated a buzz in ad circles because of where they have been moved on the schedule. Fox's "The X-Files" is moving to Sunday nights, and those surveyed said it should draw a 16 share, down from a 17 this season on Fridays. CBS' "Touched by an Angel," also moving to Sundays, should drop to an 18 share, the survey said, from a 20 share on Saturdays. And NBC's "Caroline in the City," leaving Thursday nights and a 28 share, should drop to an 18 share on Tuesdays.

PREDICTION SKILLS

While media executives are generally good at predicting hit shows in protected time periods, their record in other parts of the schedule is spottier. Whatever happens this season, advertisers are hoping it will be better than the season just ended.

"I'd hate to see a season like we just had, where two of the four networks suffered significant audience erosion," said Betsy Frank, exec VP-strategic media resources for Zenith Media Services, referring to ABC and CBS. "But this new lineup suggests they can bring viewers back to the set."

Contributing: Greg Spring of Electronic Media.

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