GOING, GOING, GONE More competition, less money are making the networks pull plug on popular programs

THE BALTIMORE SUN

What's this about Marty and Hannah and "Anything But Love" going away -- maybe forever? Has anyone seen Forrest Bedford and "I'll Fly Away" lately? Where's Arlo Weed and the rest of the "Flesh 'n' Blood" Baltimore gang anyway?

It's the halfway point of the TV season. And just as millions of viewers have become attached to one or another of the 26 new weekly series that debuted this fall, or grew even fonder of old-time favorites, many of the shows have mysteriously disappeared.

Some of the shows are said by the networks to be in that murky never-never land called "hiatus." What does that mean? Will we ever see those shows again? What's the status of my favorite show? If it's still on, will it stay on? Why do the networks jerk us around this way?

The answers to some of those questions are harder to come by than you might imagine. The big answer is that the networks are behaving so strangely because of shrinking audience shares, less money to spend on programs and an exponential increase in competition from cable and independents.

These phenomena have been going on for more than a decade, but it took about half that time for the message to get through all the sand the network executives had their heads buried in. Once they got the message,the strangeness with our favorite programs began in earnest. This year it is worse than ever.

But you already know that.

You also know that while volumes have been written about the tremendous impact TV coverage of such events as the Kennedy assassination or the Challenger explosion have had on the hearts and minds of viewers, it is the weekly series and characters like Mary Richards or Cliff Huxtable that we form our deepest emotional attachments to in front of the small screen. Jim Dasinger, a Baltimore psychologist in private practice, believes that some viewers actually go through a kind of "mourning" when their favorite character suddenly disappears from the tube.

You also probably know that even if you don't bond that deeply with TV characters, you can still get a little rattled when you sit down at, say, 9:30 Friday night and Cousin Balki and the "Perfect Strangers" crew suddenly aren't there after years of being there. Maybe it was nothing more than a half-hour of pleasant diversion or escape. But its disappearance is now yet another instance in your life of not having control over something you once could count on.

With all of that in mind, we set out to work up a mid-season score card of sorts to bring viewers up to speed on some of their favorite shows. It isn't complete, because, in some cases, the networks simply do not want you to know your favorite show has already been cancelled. The main reason is dollars and cents. Here's the way it works.

Most prime-time series are not owned by networks, like ABC, NBC, CBS and Fox. Production companies own the shows. When you read that a network "ordered" such-and-such many new episodes of a show, what that means is that the network agreed to pay such-and-such many dollars in licensing fees for the rights to air each of those episodes twice.

So, let's say a network ordered 13 episodes of a show. After the fifth show, though, the research and ratings were so bad that the network knew the show was a goner. But it has already paid for eight more episodes.

What to do? You can simply dump the shows and eat the loss. Or you can just keep airing the show in its regular time period. But during sweeps months when competition is keenest, such a low-rated show could drag down the entire night and compound your losses. Or you can put the show on the shelf during sweeps months, like February and May, and try to burn off the leftover episodes in March and April. But for those burn-off episodes to get the most viewers and advertising bucks, you can't let viewers know it's a cancelled show. So, when you pull it from the schedule, you say it's going on hiatus.

That one strategy makes for terrible complications in trying to get straight answers from the networks.

For example, CBS says "The Trials of Rosie O'Neill" is on hiatus and will be back, perhaps, as early as next month. But that's because CBS has five more episodes to get rid of. The executive producer, Barney Rosenzweig, says that he has laid off the crew, shut down production and that no more episodes are going to be made. Sharon Gless, the star, is off making a movie. Even Rosenzweig says that's a cancelled series, folks.

Series in this "hiatus" category include: "Young Riders," "The Torkelsons," "Teech," "Royal Family," "Sibs," "Pros and Cons," Palace Guard," "P.S. I Luv You," "Erie, Indiana," "Man of The People," "Pacific Station" and "Flesh 'n' Blood."

What exactly does that mean? In short, you may see them back on for a few episodes this spring between February and May sweeps, but don't get attached. They are dead meat.

There's another group that's slightly more hopeful, and fans of "I'll Fly Away" will be happy to know that letters they wrote to NBC when the series was pulled from its schedule appear to have helped move the civil-rights drama into this category. These are shows that are not performing well, but are so critically acclaimed that the networks are sticking with them for the time being.

NBC announced that "I'll Fly Away" will return to the schedule at 9 p.m. on Feb. 28. The other shows in this small group are "Reasonable Doubts," "Brooklyn Bridge" and "Civil Wars." All are still on the schedule, but get attached at your own risk. It is unlikely they will be back next year unless they catch ratings fire.

And, in case that isn't complicated enough, there's the case of "Anything But Love," starring Richard Lewis and Jamie Lee Curtis. Wednesday is its last episode of the year.

Why? According to Robert Iger, the president of ABC Entertainment, the producers came to him after they had completed 17 of the 22 ordered episodes and wanted to renegotiate the licensing fee. They said they were losing money at what ABC was paying and could no longer afford to produce shows. Coming three-fourths of the way through this year's order, it was definitely a hardball tactic.

But Iger played hardball right back and told the producers he could not renegotiate. But, he said, because he wanted to be helpful, he was going to give them a way to stop losing money: They didn't have to make any more shows for ABC. The producers were stunned, and a message was sent through the creative community.

Short term, it was probably a good move by Iger, but what about lTC the fans -- about 15 million of them -- who have developed varying degrees of attachment to Marty and Hannah and the other characters on the show? What about long-term feelings toward the network? The show is definitely done for this year. But what about next? Is it gone forever? "I'd have to say that I

don't consider this show absolutely dead. We do have an option for the show for next year. I wouldn't, at the same time, be optimistic," Iger said. How's that for pinning him down?

There are a few simple calls. Some shows were so awful this fall that the networks wanted to disassociate themselves as quickly as possible and announced cancellations -- loss or no loss. "Good and Evil," the Teri Garr show that drew protests for its insensitive depiction of blind persons, got the ax. So did the sexist "Princesses," which starred Twiggy Lawson as Princess Georgina De La Rue. (Remember Princess Georgina, she will one day be a trivia question.)

And, of course, there are the Top 20 hits. If you are a fan of a show like "Home Improvement" that is consistently in Nielsen's Top 20, you can rest easy. Your show is not going anywhere . . . until it starts to slip anyway.

"Perfect Strangers" used to be a big hit on Friday nights for ABC. But Larry and Cousin Balki are getting a little old, so they were shuffled off to Saturday nights last week . . . until they slip a little more . . . and then disappear into the black hole of hiatus where no show is "absolutely dead . . . but I wouldn't be optimistic" in the ominous language of networkspeak.

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