At TV's halfway mark, good news and bad Cable gains as networks lose ground

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Los Angeles--It's the halfway point of the 1992-'93 TV season, and the news is not very good for the networks or their viewers.

The audience erosion goes on. The three-network audience share, continuing its pattern of a decade in decline, is down another 4 percent from last year at this time.

Meanwhile, viewership for basic cable (such channels as ESPN, CNN, TNT, MTV and Comedy Central) is up 8 percent over last year, according to A. C. Nielsen figures.

There is a world of reasons for those numbers, many of them relating to such realities of the new TV universe as the growing number of cable channels and VCR technology. But network executives acknowledge that their programming failures are also contributing to their declining fortunes.

"We found that when networks fail to provide audiences with programs they are interested in, basic cable winds up being the beneficiary," said Alan Wurtzel, senior vice president for

marketing and research at ABC.

Wurtzel cited the networks' collective programming failures on Saturday night and large declines in NBC's audience for Thursday nights without Bill Cosby as two reasons for the loss of audience this year.

But another reason -- the one cited most often by viewers -- is the lack of continuity in program schedules.

One-third of the 90 or so regular series that started the year have already been canceled, sent into the never-never land of "hiatus," or moved around the schedules -- making it harder for viewers to find their favorite shows.

NBC's "Out All Night," for example, started out as a Saturday night show, was moved to Thursday and is now headed for Fridays. The next step on that slippery slope is "hiatus," followed by cancellation.

Last month, CBS decided it wanted to see if "Picket Fences" could do better on a night other than Friday. So, in Baltimore and a few other cities, "Picket Fences" and "Knots Landing" swapped places for a couple of weeks. The result was major confusion for viewers of "Knots Landing," one of the highest-rated dramas on television, now in its last season.

This halfway point in the 30-week TV season is the time of the year when prime-time viewing gets more complicated and frustrating than ever. The networks rearrange their schedules, adding new shows and shelving others -- testing some pilots for possible inclusion next fall and burning off episodes of shows they have privately decided won't be back. And in less than two weeks, all that is further complicated by the event programming of February "sweeps," which pre-empts all but the most ratings-mighty of the regular series.

What follows is a mid-year report card on each of the four broadcast networks, which should offer some relief in dealing with the increasingly complicated process of simply trying to watch television.

ABC

ABC gets the only A so far this year.

Analysis: While CBS is the network getting the good press because it's No. 1 in the overall ratings race, ABC is the only network showing audience growth, especially among adults 18 to 49 years old, the key demographic for advertisers.

Last year CBS won the ratings race but lost money, while ABC finished third and made $110 million, according to filings with the Security and Exchange Commission. Look for the same this year when the dollars are all counted.

Overall, the reasons for ABC's success include a commitment to that 18-to-49-year-old audience and a philosophy of trying to provide as much continuity in its schedule as possible.

Among the specific reasons for success this year are gangbusters numbers for "Roseanne" and "Home Improvement," as well as an increasingly strong performances by the newsmagazines "Prime Time Live" and "20/20."

Greatest strengths: ABC owns Tuesday nights and has a news division that's good enough to win both prestige and ratings for the network.

Canceled: "Laurie Hill" and "Crossroads." "Homefront" and "Going to Extremes" are on hiatus.

What to look for: Less change in regular series than on the other networks. Coming specials include: Susan Lucci in "Between Love and Hate," a TV movie and a Billy Ray Cyrus music special, both in February; "Family Pictures," a miniseries with Anjelica Huston, in March; "Stephen King's Tommyknockers" in May; and "Wild Palms," a miniseries produced by Oliver Stone, in April. ABC News will premiere "Day One," a newsmagazine, in March.

CBS

CBS gets a B.

Analysis: CBS is the No. 1 network in overall viewing, but its audience is down 2 percent from last year, with a 6 percent loss in young adults. It will win the ratings battle this year, but lose the money war to ABC.

The good news is that CBS entertainment president Jeff Sagansky is a great programmer with a real talent for developing new shows. As a result, CBS, too, will provide some lineup continuity.

Greatest strength: CBS owns Monday nights. On Sundays, "60 Minutes" and "Murder, She Wrote" just keep rollin' along.

Canceled: "Angel Street" and "2000 Malibu Road."

What to look for in new series: Dudley Moore as a playboy in "Dudley"; Shelley Long as a Dear Abby in "Good Advice" with Treat Williams; Chuck Norris as a Texas Ranger in "Walker, Texas Ranger"; and a definite spot on the schedule for Jane Seymour's "Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman." Look for "Space Rangers" to be gone by May.

In terms of specials, "Alex Haley's Queen," starring Halle Berry, is the best miniseries in years. It's a great story, and Berry is terrific. It airs in February.

Fox

Fox gets a C.

Analysis: There's been a lot of shake-ups in management, with Fox broadcasting president Jamie Kellner resigning this month and Lucie Salhany being named chairwoman. There was a loss of momentum and direction this fall at a network that had shown the big three how to make money the past four years. Last year, Fox made $53 million.

Fox remains in good shape. It has held its young audience this fall, despite the failure of such shows as "The Heights." But it hasn't shown any growth.

There are major question marks about the future of "In Living Color," now that Keenen Ivory Wayans has left, and whether or not Charles Dutton & Co. will return for another year of live "Roc." The network's expansion into Tuesday nights starting this week is the biggest question mark of all, and the one that could put a huge dent in profits if it fails.

Greatest strength: Unrivaled ability to deliver the 18-to-34-year-old audience to advertisers with such shows as "The Simpsons" and "Beverly Hills 90210." Also has one of few genuine new show hits in "Martin."

Canceled: "The Heights" and "Woops."

What to look for: "Class of '96," which debuts Tuesday, is a smart and touching series. "Key West," which also arrives Tuesday, is a mess. "The Robert Townsend Variety Show" goes into production next month. "Dame Edna" leaves NBC to join Fox next month. "Tribeca," an anthology series about a New York RTC neighborhood, will earn Fox some respect if nothing else when it airs. Robert De Niro produces "Tribeca."

NBC

NBC gets an F.

Analysis: This is a network that's in big trouble any way you look at it. It's overall audience is down 13 percent from a year ago.

But the worst news is in the early results of its strategy to go after the young audience of ABC and the even younger viewers at Fox. Not surprisingly, since it dumped such shows as "Matlock" and "In the Heat of the Night," its audience of adults 50 years old and older is down 23 percent from a year ago. The disaster, though, is that its audiences of viewers 18 to 34 and 18 to 49 are also each down 10 percent.

In an attempt to staunch the flow of viewers, NBC has moved shows all over the place, with the result that many of the viewers it had left are angry and/or confused. (Beginning next month, "Seinfeld" moves to Thursdays, with "Mad About You" on Saturdays.) The network no longer has a Top 10 show. Forget profits. The only question is how great the losses will be.

Greatest strength: None.

Canceled: "I'll Fly Away" and "The Round Table."

What to look for: Barry Levinson's "Homicide." The first episode, which Levinson directed and NBC has scheduled to air after the Super Bowl Jan. 31, ends with a scene that's five minutes of the most intense television I can remember ever seeing. The show might be too dark in tone and demand too much concentration for the taste of some viewers, but it is simply one of the finest pilots ever made.

Like "Hill Street Blues," though, "Homicide" is not the kind of drama likely to win huge ratings right away. And there is nothing NBC needs more than ratings right now.

Top 10 network shows at midseason

The numbers at the right represent rating and share. Each rating equals 921,000 TV households.

1. "60 Minutes" (CBS) 21.435

2. "Roseanne" (ABC) 21.333

3. "Murphy Brown" (CBS) 19.028

4. "Coach" (ABC) 17.827

5. "Murder, She Wrote" (CBS) 17.626

6. "Monday Night Football" (ABC) 16.828

7. "Home Improvement" (ABC) 16.726

8. "Jackie Thomas Show" (ABC) 16.025

9. "Full House" (ABC) 15.825

10. "Northern Exposure" (CBS) 15.425

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