Networks fill slates, but all could use good laugh

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For all network programming schedules, the next year is a simple case of eliminating the weakest links. * Apart from cutting the poorest programming, the greatest area the networks need to focus on is averting two possible strikes. Earlier this month, the networks tentatively settled with the Writers Guild of America. But there's still the Screen Actors Guild/American Federation of Television & Radio Artists negotiations, and a failure to resolve those could still disrupt the networks' fall.

There is a possibility the broadcast networks may get away clean-as there is hope from multiple sides in trying to avoid an actors' strike. But even if they don't, all networks will come back with the same problems that exist right now.

Some networks such as NBC have been behind in coming up with reality shows while almost all networks need a good comedy. With that in mind, Ad Age surveys programming analysts and looks at some remedies for each networks.


NBC missed the boat in the initial race for reality and game shows. "Survivor" and "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire" took off, while NBC's late entry, "Twenty One," took a game-show concept from the '50s, brought in Maury Povich as host, and then hoped to compete. The show was canceled.

The failure to bring out a "Millionaire" fighter was partly the reason that cost NBC Programming President Garth Ancier his job.

Now, NBC, with an acerbic BBC import game show, "Weakest Link," hosted by Anne Robinson, threatens to put the network back on the map-especially for some troubling nights. It earned a 20 share from Nielsen Media Research for its April premiere week on Wednesday night. It helped win Monday night away from CBS that week, and built its share of audience each of three nights.

Stacey Lynn Koerner, VP-broadcast research at True North Communications' TN Media, New York, says the show's Monday night at 8 p.m. (ET) slot is a great spot-long a black hole for the network.

This is an increasingly important night for all networks. "Historically, Sunday nights have been the highest HUT [homes using television] nights," says Ms. Koerner. "But recently Monday HUT levels have been about the same as Sunday. Sometimes, Monday can be higher."

Tuesdays have been more of a problem for NBC. Though "Frasier's" move to the night didn't hurt the show's high ratings, shows around it have sagged. "They thought they could invent the whole night around `Frasier,"' says Brad Adgate, senior VP-audience research, Horizon Media, New York.

In particular, shows such as the comedy "Three Sisters" haven't been able to hold onto at least 75% to 80% of "Frasier's " lead-out audience-a no-no for programming executives. "DAG," a half-hour sitcom, also isn't promising, only doing about half of "Frasier's" numbers as a lead-in.

NBC's best nights are Wednes-days, Fridays and, of course, Thursdays. Analysts don't believe it'll change much on these nights. "Ed," "The West Wing" and "Law & Order" on Wednesdays, for instance, easily win the night for NBC. NBC also wins Fridays, with "Providence," "Dateline" and "Law & Order: SVU." Thursdays continue to score well with "Friends" and "ER," but, except for an expected replacement for "The Weber Show," NBC won't change much here.

The XFL probably will be back on Saturdays but not in prime time.

On Sundays, NBC will be abandoning its movie to put in series programming. Programming executives believe this could include possibly "Ed" coming back to the anchor the night, as well as the new "Law & Order: Criminal Intent," which could go up against "The Practice" at 10 p.m.


The song remains the same for ABC, according to programming analysts: Trim back on the four nights for "Who Wants To Be a Millionaire" and ABC will be a happier network-if not a younger skewing network.

Ms. Koerner believes the network will do just that, pulling back on Tuesday night, and perhaps even Friday, leaving only Thursday and Sunday.

ABC didn't have much luck with its new shows. Even replacements "My Wife & Kids" and "What About Joan" started off well, but their ratings performances were against other network reruns and haven't really been tested. Now "What About Joan" has been trending in the wrong direction. "It has been declining every week," says Ms. Koerner.

Not only that but programming executives say two of ABC's most promising dramas are on the bubble-"Gideon's Crossing" and "Once & Again." Sharianne Brill, senior VP-programming services for Aegis Group's Carat North America, New York, believes that for "Gideon," ABC didn't assemble a strong enough cast around its star, Andre Braugher. Other analysts say "Once & Again" is faring about the same as "Gideon" in the ratings. Tuesdays and Sundays are ABC's best nights. On Tuesdays, ABC has "Millionaire" as an anchor, followed by "Dharma & Greg" and later in the evening "NYPD Blue." On Sundays, ABC's "Millionaire" still works well with "Wonderful World of Disney" and "The Practice," according to analysts.

But Fridays are particularly troubling for ABC. After giving up its "TGIF" themed night of teen programs, including "Sabrina, The Teen-age Witch," the network hasn't been able to make a go of it with "Two Guys & a Girl" or "Norm" in the 8 p.m. to 9 p.m. time slots.


CBS hasn't just survived with "Survivor: The Australian Out-back"-it has thrived.

Taking a chance on the highest profile night in network TV, Thursday night, by tag-teaming "Survivor" and its only other scripted success of this season, "CSI: Crime Scene Investigation," CBS has given NBC plenty to worry about.

"CSI" is so now established that Ms. Brill says, "It could anchor its own night." But CBS might not go that far right now. Analysts think that with NBC possibly looking at the last season of "Friends" as well as the last season of Anthony Edwards on "ER," CBS wants to control the night for the long term.

NBC is "ripe for the taking now," says Ms. Brill. CBS' trouble spots are Wednesday and Fridays. On Wednesday the Tiffany Network gambled on "Bette," starring Bette Midler, but lost that wager. Agency analysts point out "Welcome to New York," and "My Best Friends" also failed to gain any strength. "CBS has trouble in developing adult comedies," says Ms. Koerner.

On Fridays, CBS' expensive show "The Fugitive" likely won't make it into the new season, and its longtime workhorse "Diagnosis: Murder" isn't coming back. That leaves only "Nash Bridges" to build a night around. Analysts believe CBS should target men here, possibly with a spy drama, or with a new pilot focusing on the Supreme Court starring James Garner.

A bright spot for CBS on Saturday has been "Kate Brasher," which has improved ratings week-to-week. But low-rated "That's Life," which starts off the evening, isn't expected to make next season's cut.


Once again, Fox is in the hunt.

Having made great ratings gains this past season by firmly cementing Monday and Tuesday nights, with "Boston Public" and "Dark Angel," respectively, Fox has rocketed to second place in the key adult 18-49 demo and first among adults 18-34. Sundays also score well. It's the middle of the week where Fox has had troubles-Wednesdays, Thursdays and Fridays.

Yeoman's work goes to "That '70s Show" for being able to take on long double runs on Tuesdays, its main night, and Wednesdays, after "Normal, Ohio" failed and "Schimmel" was put on hold while its star, Robert Schimmel, deals with health problems.

Fox was high on "The Street" at 9 p.m. on Wednesday, which wound up as one of the network's first tragedies. Good news here was that it was replaced by two successful reality shows-the scandalous "Temptation Island" and then the arduous "Boot Camp." Fox is doing another "Temptation Island"-no doubt for the same time period. "This could be their reality hour," says Ms. Koerner.

On Thursday, Fox has its movie, which has been performing adequately but not outstanding, especially against other more formable competition, says Ms. Koerner.

Fox's Fridays haven't done what was promised. "The Lone Gunman" was spun off from "The X-Files" but never approached "X-Files"-like numbers. And the new Michael Crichton project, which was to run at 9 p.m., never materialized.


One of the Frog network's biggest programming challenges is replacing one of its main network-anchor shows-"Buffy the Vampire Slayer," which the network lost last month in a bidding war with UPN.

This means the WB will have to rebuild its Tuesday night, which has been doing good numbers with women 18-34 for "Buffy" and its companion show, "Angel." But this year, " `Angel' has seen some slippage," says Ms. Brill, who adds that "Angel" seemingly lost male viewers to Fox's "Dark Angel," which plays against it at 9 p.m.

Monday is the WB's Family Friendly night with "7th Heaven" and "Gilmore Girls." But "Gilmore Girls" really hasn't found a home, having moved from Thursday. Programming analysts say the Family Friendly Forum, a consortium of advertisers that fund the show, would rather see it play at 8 p.m., which is more a family hour.

The WB's Wednesday with "Dawson's Creek" could use some work. " `Dawson' has slipped," says Ms. Brill. And WB's 9 p.m. show "Jack & Jill" hasn't even kept much of "Dawson's" audience. However, the network is seemingly ready to put "Felicity" back in the 9 p.m. time slot. "`Felicity' did really well this season," says Ms. Koerner.


UPN might be a wanderer, now that it is losing its "Voyager."

UPN will have a replacement for "Star Trek: Voyager," which is ending its run this season, with another "Star Trek" series, but it might not come until the first quarter of 2002.

Until that time, UPN had been looking for some help, which could come in the form of its new acquisition of "Buffy the Vampire Slayer." (see related story on Page S-16.) UPN might pair "Buffy" with the "Men In Black"-like, "Special Unit 2," which has been doing a 3 share that night leading into "Voyager." "Everything on UPN seemingly does a 3 share," says Ms. Koerner.

The hope now, programming analysts say, is that Buffy would improve on this trend.

"WWF Smackdown!" still carries a lot of rating weight with young males on Thursday. Analysts say that night, as well as UPN's urban and male-targeted Monday night, with "Moesha," "The Hughleys" and "The Parkers" earning good numbers, will remain pretty much intact.

UPN would do well to find help on Fridays-perhaps the poorest performing night for any single network-in posting barely over a 1.0 rating for the evening. This is despite its controversial animated show, "Celebrity Deathmatch," which developed a cult following on MTV.

"It's difficult for UPN," says Ms. Koerner. "They are supposed to be the network for young men, but everyone else is going after young men on Friday. It might do better in going after male teens instead."

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