SPECIAL CHALLENGES CALL FOR A STRONG RESPONSE AT NETS - BUT ARE GIANTS CAPABLE OF FIXING OBVIOUS TROUBLE SPOTS IN FALL SCHEDULE?

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Early in the 1990s, the late Brandon Tartikoff -- then the president of NBC Entertainment -- warned of the perils of "cookie cutter" TV. "Tried and true," he proclaimed, would eventually equal "dead and buried."

Now, as the decade winds down, Mr. Tartikoff's words seem prophetic, with ABC, NBC and CBS having suffered historic low ratings in the 1997-98 TV season.

BLUE MONDAYS

When the season began, NBC expected big things from its multiple female-driven comedies, most of them on Monday nights. ABC was going to reverse its fortunes with gritty quality dramas and revitalize its fading TGIF franchise by exclusively targeting teen viewers. CBS was going to lure young viewers by mimicking the kid-driven TGIF of old.

All of these strategies failed, adding to the broadcast network audience erosion already instigated by the rising popularity of cable programming.

Indeed, season-to-date Nielsen figures show across the board declines for ABC, NBC and CBS in households and among adults 18 to 49 and 25 to 54 for regularly scheduled series programming, when compared to the same period during 1996-97.

UPSTARTS SHOW METTLE

Scrappy upstarts Fox and WB have fared considerably better. Although Fox has seen a decrease in households and among adults 25 to 54 for its regular series from 1996-97 to 1997-98 season-to-date, its adult 18 to 49 demographic has remained flat -- a noteworthy accomplishment in the era of erosion.

Much of Fox' success is due to its quirky freshman sensation "Ally McBeal," the type of unusual, high-concept program dismissed as too risky by network programmers several years back.

WB, which was suffering in all ratings categories during 1996-97, has reversed its failing fortunes across the board, due in part to its midseason hit "Dawson's Creek."

Of course, not all upstarts are alike. UPN has suffered serious losses this season in all categories. For example, households went from a 3.3 for the 1996-97 season to a 2.9 for the 1997-98 season-to-date.

The netlet's only sign of life was the premiere of its "Love Boat" remake in April.

DIFFICULT TIME

The state of each network will be reflected when they announce their 1998-99 schedules during the week of May 18. Among the Big Four, it appears ABC is faced with the most daunting task, according to a number of media managers.

"ABC is having a really difficult time," says Audrey Steele, senior VP and director of strategic media resources at Zenith Media, New York. "They have holes on just about every night."

If established hits are key to reversing an eroding network's fortunes, then Ms. Steele says ABC is really hindered.

"The Drew Carey Show' in my estimation is ABC's only hit with life and growth ahead of it that also seems to have some impact on the shows around it," Ms. Steele asserts, referring to the recent success of the midseason comedy series "Two Guys, a Girl and a Pizza Place," which follows "Drew Carey."

HOPE FOR ABC

But there may be hope for the beleaguered alphabet net.

"In the past, ABC really had a lack of direction," recalls TN Media senior partner Steve Sternberg.

Thinking back on ABC's recent development presentations to advertisers, he says, "ABC now seems to be focused on a night-by-night basis."

Mr. Sternberg says he expects a renewed emphasis on family comedies on Tuesdays, continued adult comedy programming on Wednesdays and a return to kids-oriented programming with an adult presence (think "Full House") on Fridays.

ABC is developing some intriguing dramas, most likely for Thursday and Saturday nights. But don't look for grit and anxiety that typified this season's prestige failures "Nothing Sacred" and "Cracker."

"ABC has acknowledged quality dramas do not have to be dark," Mr. Sternberg says. "They're trying to make them fun and entertaining."

NBC will need a solid hit Thursday at 9 p.m. in the wake of the departure of "Seinfeld."

"Don't count us out," NBC West Coast President Don Ohlmeyer advised advertisers during his network's development meetings, noting that NBC had dealt with a similar situation when it lost "Cheers" in 1993.

"Losing `Seinfeld' has to bring NBC back to the pack," says Gary Carr, senior VP-group director of national broadcast. Ammirati Puris Lintas, New York at "Even if they move `Frasier' to the `Seinfeld' slot, that will weaken Tuesday. NBC has its work cut out for it."

Another challenge for NBC is repairing its disastrous Wednesday night 8 to 10 p.m. [ET] block.

Ad executives expect the renewed "3rd Rock from the Sun" to move to another night. Whether or not the freshman comedy "Working" will move off Wednesday depends on what the network decides to do with the night.

MONDAY REVAMP

NBC also needs a revamp on Mondays, and at least one hour of new programming on Tuesdays, Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays.

"NBC did admit during its development meetings that they made a mistake scheduling 18 comedies last fall," says Mr. Sternberg. "But they wanted to plant as many seeds as possible, because they thought this might be the last season for `Seinfeld.' "

He adds that NBC is intent on developing "new shows with unknown talents," a philosophy that served the network well with "Friends" and "ER."

Expect additional editions of NBC News' "Dateline NBC" next season. "Don Ohlmeyer said he envisions a day when `Dateline' would be stripped throughout the week," Ms. Steele says.

FLOPS AT CBS

CBS also has significant problems to address next season.

"Pull out their Olympics numbers and CBS is down 8% to 10% in most demos," observes Mr. Carr.

"None of their new shows succeeded, and they really flopped trying to go after the TGIF audience."

Mr. Sternberg notes that CBS' audience has actually grown older.

"CBS median age is 52," says Mr. Sternberg. "In 1993, the median age was 48. I'm sure they would be happy with that right now."

CBS will focus more on men and offer more urban-themed shows next year, Mr. Sternberg adds.

Ms. Steele is concerned about CBS' once formidable Monday night, which, she says, "has gotten progressively older in recent year," and its Friday lineup, which she labels "a mess."

But, she thinks the basic strategy behind most of the network's nightly schedules will remain the same.

Expect minimum changes from Fox.

"Out of all of them, Fox seems to have the best vision," Ms. Steele asserts. It "will make as few changes as possible and not insult viewers by moving shows around."

MUST FIXES

Tuesday and Thursday are the nights Fox must fix. Ms. Steele says she expects two male-oriented action-adventure shows to replace Fox' Tuesday night movie, and thinks that, on Thursday, the network should turn back to "Must See TV" for African-Americans, a strategy that served it well for many years opposite the NBC juggernaut.

Mr. Carr would like to see the network halt its erosion among 25 to 54. "Fox' strength is still 18 to 49 and younger, but that's a lot of people they're not getting," he says.

"WB has had a great year," Mr. Carr says, noting the strong ratings for "7th Heaven," "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" and "Dawson's Creek." Although the network plans to open a fifth night next season, he says the network won't rush it.

At the very least, WB will need to pump new life into its sagging Sunday lineup. Mr. Sternberg suggests a drama at 9 p.m. that skews young and female.

UPN NEEDS `OVERHAUL'

Meanwhile, UPN "needs a complete overhaul," Mr. Sternberg says.

"UPN is down as much as the WB is up," says Mr. Carr. But, he says new network President Dean Valentine is acutely aware of UPN's many problems, which include the decline of its flagship series, "Star Trek: Voyager."

"The development I saw was completely different from what UPN has been. [Mr.] Valentine is going to program for middle America," he concludes.

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