The networks' fall television season doesn't officially start for two more weeks. But for viewers, it starts tonight, with Fox launching its lineup of new shows and bringing back such hits as "The Simpsons" and "Married . . . With Children."
Next week, ABC and CBS will roll out so many of their new shows that more than half of the 27 new series will have premiered on Fox, CBS, ABC and NBC by the official start date. The best new series of the season -- ABC's "My So-Called Life" -- is going into its third week.
FYI, the "official" TV season is that 30-week period from Sept. 18 to April 15, during which time Nielsen ratings are used by networks to determine rankings for the year -- bragging rights, so to speak. The networks roll out their shows early to get a jump on the competition. But it has never before been done to this extent.
This year, there is no new series that has created the kind of buzz that ABC's "NYPD Blue" did last year. In fact, there's only one new series that leading advertising agencies and network sales departments are willing to label a hit -- NBC's "Madman of the People," with Dabney Coleman. The main reason is that it follows "Seinfeld" on Thursdays, not because of any intrinsic merit.
Last year, dubbed "the year of living cautiously" in Hollywood, was a relatively good year for the networks -- with 14 of 35 new shows making the cut to return this fall, vs. only seven winners the year before.
The explanation of why there isn't a lot of excitement being generated by this crop of new shows is that they are the product of the networks' imitating what worked last year. They are playing it conservatively.
"Last season was a tough act to follow, and the networks have chosen to follow it very carefully -- with more stability and conservatism than one would wish," says Betsy Frank, senior vice president and media buyer for Saatchi & Saatchi Advertising.
But there's a deeper reason for the fact that there are fewer new shows and less innovation than in recent years. It's connected to larger forces affecting network TV. The key to it is brand identity -- the buzzword of network executives during the summer press tour.
Faced with the long-term prospect of 500 channels of competition, and the urgent short-term need to hold viewers during an unprecedented affiliate shake-up, each of the networks has stepped up its efforts to fine-tune a distinctive programming identity that will make viewers seek it out.
"The brand is what matters, absolutely," says George Schweitzer, executive vice president for marketing at CBS. "The value of the CBS brand has never been greater than you will see in the year ahead, particularly as viewers search in key markets for CBS programming."
As a result, networks are being more selective -- putting on only those shows that fit the identity they are trying to create.
If it works, some viewers will find themselves spending more time with a given network than ever before.
What network you watch most now will say a great deal about you. As one network programmer said this summer: "You know that '60s thing about you are what you eat? Well, with us these days, it might not be that you are what you watch, but we definitely believe that you watch what you are."
Here are the identities and strategies for each network this year:
NFL football, and the men who watch it, are the big stories at Fox this year.
Fox stole the NFL franchise from CBS with a bid of $1.58 billion for four years, and Rupert Murdoch believes he can use the games to bring new male viewers to Fox's non-football, prime-time schedule.
How? Watch today and tonight as Fox uses an NFL football doubleheader to promote its prime-time lineup of new and returning shows.
"Sunday, Sept. 4, will be the primary platform from which everything else will spring as we dive into the new season," says Sandy Grushow, the president of Fox Entertainment.
John Madden, Pat Summerall and the other announcers will promote the prime-time shows during the games, and Terry Bradshaw and Howie Long will make appearances throughout prime time to introduce the shows.
The new series that typifies Fox-think this year is "Hardball," a small-screen version of "Major League."
The producers say the idea for the locker-room sitcom came straight from Fox executives who called them in after Fox won the NFL rights last December. They told the producers they wanted a jock sitcom to keep male viewers tuned to Fox after the games ended.
Two other Sunday shows debut tonight -- "Fortune Hunter," an adventure show about a modern-day James Bond type, and "Wild Oats," a show about twentysomethings and sex. Both are targeted at men.
The biggest risk for Fox this year is in all the shows it has moved to new times and nights.
As Howard Stringer, the president of CBS, puts it, "Fox has moved a lot of its shows, which is either bold or stupid, you take your pick."
One of the key moves goes into effect tonight as "The Simpsons" starts its new season at 8 p.m., a hotly contested time period.
Because of "The Simpsons" and shows like "Melrose Place" and Beverly Hills, 90210," Fox will continue to be strong with teens and viewers in their 20s -- its core audience. But this is going to be a year of readjustment between Fox and its African-American audience.
The network has always had a large black audience. But, in May, it canceled two low-rated, high-quality shows -- "Roc" and "South Central." It has replaced them with more glittery and escapist fare -- "New York Undercover" and "M.A.N.T.I.S." How black viewers respond should have a considerable impact on the future direction of Fox.
Overall, despite having the hottest show on TV in "Melrose Place," Fox had a bad year in the ratings last year. The headlines it made were for spending money to buy the NFL and 12 affiliate stations -- not for winning viewers. The network needs to start getting some immediate return in the ratings.
With the prime-time audience now almost two-thirds women, though, Fox will be doing all the networks a big favor if it can bring more men back to prime time through football.
CBS is the network of older viewers. In terms of ad sales, that's a problem. While CBS finished first in ratings last year, it finished third to ABC and NBC in advance ad sales for this TV season. This year, ABC is expected to beat CBS not only in demographics but also in overall viewership.
The big problem at CBS made itself apparent during the summer press tour when Stringer brought Ken Dychtwald, the author of "Age Wave," to California to try to convince TV critics that the secret to being a commercial success was getting baby boomers to like your network.
What some critics became convinced of instead was that Dychtwald thought the TV audience consisted only of white, upper-middle-class, baby-boomer men like himself, which explained why CBS was so woefully lacking in diversity this year.
CBS has only one new program with an African-American star or co-star, "Touched by an Angel," with Della Reese. And that show is reportedly such a mess that the network has no pilot. The smart money says "Touched by an Angel" will be replaced on the schedule by "Christy" before it ever airs.
The most talked-about and perhaps most typical new CBS show "Chicago Hope," which stars Mandy Patinkin in a drama about surgeons at a Chicago hospital. Patinkin and the other baby-boomer guys are not only brilliant but also cool in this one. The surgeons sing Gladys Knight's "Midnight Train to Georgia" during operations and kid about how they wish they were Pips.
But in the pilot, "Chicago Hope" had no African-American doctors, nurses or administrators in the Chicago hospital. When this was pointed out to the producers during a press conference, they said they planned to add a black doctor. You wonder why no one thought of it before.
CBS has other, even larger problems. For one thing, the network is perceived as being for sale.
Furthermore, its shows with very old audiences, like "Diagnosis Murder," will be pre-empted by some affiliates -- as WBAL is doing in Baltimore. Such pre-emptions beg such metaphysical questions as: How many affiliate pre-emptions does it take before a network is no longer really a network in the eyes of advertisers? Most advertisers aren't big on metaphysics.
ABC is the family network -- especially young families. It's also the network reaching out hardest to different ethnic groups. Overall, this is going to be ABC's year.
The sitcom "Me and the Boys" is a good example of ABC's approach to programming. It's a about a black, middle-class, thirtysomething dad (played by comedian Steve Harvey) who is trying to raise his three sons after the death of his wife. His mother-in-law (Madge Sinclair) is on hand to help out.
The show should appeal to both kids and parents. It should also have a particular appeal to African-Americans. To help it find an audience, it's hammocked between two hit family sitcoms, "Full House" and "Home Improvement." Unless NBC's "Martin Short Show" is a huge hit, "Me and the Boys" should be a ratings winner.
"My So-Called Life" is another hallmark ABC show. For those who have not seen it, the central drama is about a 15-year-old girl (Claire Danes) coming of age. But there's another family drama within the drama that focuses on her baby-boomer parents (Tom Irwin and Bess Armstrong). It's a quality show that should work both for teen and adult viewers.
Also this fall, ABC Entertainment President Ted Harbert is introducing what he calls the "Saturday night family movie franchise."
"This is an opportunity for us to, we think, solve a real problem for families for Saturday night. Your own anecdotal experience will tell you that the family with one, two or three children has a real problem figuring out what they're going to do after they've maybe gone out to the Sizzler for dinner and are home at 7:30 or 8 on Saturday night," Harbert says.
"I'd like to get that family sitting together like they do on weeknights watching ABC. That's why we have more viewers watching ABC than anyone else -- because we get the family audience."
In addition to "Me and the Boys," ABC has another sitcom about an African-American family, "On Our Own," as well as one about a Korean-American family, "All American Girl," starring Margaret Cho.
A big ABC programming story, which has received little attention, is its savvy move to schedule newsmagazines three nights a week at 10 p.m. in the fall and four nights a week starting in January, when "Day One" returns after football.
ABC's got the hot newsmagazines with "Turning Point," "20/20" and "Primetime Live." And the affiliates love seeing them air at 10 p.m. because they serve as lead-ins to local news. If the O.J. Simpson jury selection and trial serve up enough juice this fall, forget the new sitcoms; prime-time newsmagazines could become the ratings story of the season.
By its own admission, NBC has the softest focus of the four networks and still defines itself in terms of the competition. But it's improving.
"We're an alternative to what the competition is doing," NBC Entertainment President Warren Littlefield says. "ABC is particularly strong with those family comedies. . . . And I think our comedies are a little more adult-oriented."
The target audience at NBC is adults 30 to 49 years old, and they've been winning more of them with comedies like "Frasier," "Seinfeld" and "Mad About You."
The strength of NBC's fall schedule is having several promising new sitcoms that target the same audience -- "Madman of the People," "The Martin Short Show" and "Friends." All three could be winners for the network, which would be enough to claim victory in development of new series. The two available for preview -- "Madman" and "Friends" -- have the irreverence that's becoming a trademark of NBC comedy.
The network also has two new dramas that young adults should like -- Michael Crichton's "E.R." and "Sweet Justice," which stars Melissa Gilbert and Cicely Tyson. Then there's the return of "Homicide" and Bill Cosby in "The Cosby Mysteries."
Newsmagazines are a key part of the NBC strategy, too. Three different editions of "Dateline" on three different nights each week are a big gamble. And there's going to be lots of competition with 11 hours of prime-time newsmagazines by January, up from nine last year.
Overall, NBC looks to have the second-best new schedule of shows, right behind ABC. But there are still a lot of "ifs" involved: If "Frasier" and "Wings" can deliver on Tuesday what they have on Thursday . . . If Short's scattershot brilliance can be shaped to the conventions of the weekly sitcom . . . If "Fresh Prince" and "Blossom" can hold off the new challenges from "Coach" and "Melrose Place."
NBC West Coast President Don Ohlmeyer was asked how he would characterize his network's fall schedule "in one catchy word."
"One catchy word?" he asked with an edge. "Um, cheeseburger. Yes, I'd have to say cheeseburger. . . . I don't know. One word, what kind of question is that? OK, bold. It's a bold schedule, a very bold schedule."