The main course of the 1994-1995 television season has been a flop, one of the worst flops in years. Only two new prime-time series, out of 32, have won enough viewers to be called hits -- NBC's "Friends" and "ER."
But the networks are hoping that viewers will want seconds anyway. Tonight, they start the rollout of 14 more new series in what has come to be known as television's second season.
On the surface, the menu of new series does not appear too promising. It mainly looks like older stars served up in warmed-over, old-time programming formulas: James Earl Jones as the grandpa in a family drama, Patty Duke as an ordained minister in another family drama, Valerie Harper heading up a secretarial pool, and James Brolin leading a rescue team. A doctor drama and a series about a lawyer are thrown in for good measure.
But if you look a bit deeper, there are some promising developments in the crop of spring shows: the first black family ++ drama in 14 years, a couple of series that deal with rarely explored working-class concerns, and a weekly adventure show about virtual reality from the producers of "China Beach."
There might even be something new about the return to all those old doctor-lawyer-rescue formulas. It's one of the ways television is responding to the conservative mood in the country, some industry executives say.
"I think we're trying to listen more to the audience and figure out what the public was telling us [in the November elections]," says NBC entertainment president Warren Littlefield. "There's a real need out there for the familiar, and we're all trying to respond to that."
That's looking at the issue of television as a cultural force -- producing shared images that both reflect society and shape social reality.
Business as usual
The second-season story is first and foremost a nuts-and-bolts business one, with CBS, Fox, NBC and ABC trying to plug holes in their schedules -- and test market some of their more expensive drama series before making decisions on whether the shows will make their prime-time schedules for fall. Think of the auto industry, only instead of market shares and new car designs, think Nielsen ratings and television pilots.
CBS and Fox, networks that are struggling, in effect are starting their third season this week. Both debuted a block of new shows in early January in hopes of recovering from a weak fall launch. But most of those January replacements -- like the remake of "Get Smart" on Fox and Delta Burke's "Women of the House" on CBS -- have already been axed or sent off on hiatus.
CBS is in third place overall, but has fallen into fourth behind Fox in the important 18-to-49-year-old demographic. The ratings are so bad that CBS is giving free time to many advertisers in an effort to make up for time sold last fall that did not deliver the promised audience, CBS group president Peter Lund told Broadcasting and Cable magazine last week.
The ratings debacle is largely the result of a decision to concentrate on aging baby boomer viewers for the last three seasons. That call was made by Howard Stringer, who resigned as group president two weeks ago to head a new programming and distribution alliance among Bell Atlantic, Pacific Telesis and Nynex.
"We have to reinvent ourselves. . . . We don't have enough programming for younger viewers," says CBS entertainment president Peter Tortorici, explaining why the network will bring on at least three more new series in addition to the three it debuted in January.
The three new CBS series are: "Under One Roof," a drama about a middle-class black family in Seattle that stars Jones, Joe Morton and Vanessa Bell Calloway; "The George Wendt Show," a sitcom that features Wendt (Norm of "Cheers") as one-half of a brother team that does a radio show about car repair; and "The Office," with Harper in a sitcom about secretaries and bosses.
Wendt's show premieres Wednesday, "The Office" on Saturday, and "Under One Roof" starts its six-week run March 14.
To make room for them, CBS has canceled "Hearts Afire" and "The Boys Are Back." The network has also placed "Rescue 911," "Love & War" and "Touched by an Angel" on hiatus. And, while it's not yet official, Burke's "Women of the House" is history, too -- as soon as CBS can burn off the three episodes of "Women" it has sitting on the shelf. "Hearts Afire" and "Women" are produced by Linda Bloodworth-Thomason, friend of the Clintons and a favorite of Stringer.
Fox is doing some major housecleaning, too, pulling the plug on "Models, Inc.," "M.A.N.T.I.S.," "House of Buggin' " and "Get Smart." The last episode of "Models" will air tomorrow night. The other three are already gone.
Premiering tonight at 7 on Fox will be "The Great Defender," starring Michael Rispoli as a personal-injury attorney with a blue-collar background who suddenly finds himself a partner in a blue-blood Boston law firm.
Fox will also launch its retooled version of "The Critic" tonight at 8:30. The animated series about a hapless television critic, which had a short run two years ago on ABC, is produced by James Brooks, executive producer of "The Simpsons."
"VR5" arrives Friday as the new Fox lead-in to "X Files." The
adventure series stars Lori Singer as a telephone linewoman by day and computer hacker by night who stumbles onto a way to enter the world of virtual reality. It is produced by John Sacret Young, of "China Beach."
On March 13, "Medicine Ball," an ensemble drama about first-year residents in a Seattle hospital, will take over the old "Models" time slot on Monday nights after "Melrose Place."
"Sliders," an action-adventure series about parallel universes, will also debut in March, though no date has been set yet.
NBC, which is running a strong second this season and has just won the February sweeps, has five new series on tap. Four are sitcoms, which the network hopes will help it hold on to the big audiences attracted by such NBC hits as "Frasier" on Tuesdays and "Mad About You" on Thursdays.
"Hope & Gloria," which debuts at 8:30 p.m. Thursday, is a sitcom that centers on the friendship of two women -- one a hairdresser, the other the producer of a local talk show in Pittsburgh. It's from the producers of "Cheers," with Alan Thicke playing the host of the talk show as a Ted Baxter type.
Joining NBC's Tuesday lineup March 21 is another sitcom set in the world of broadcasting -- "NewsRadio," with Phil Hartman. "Pride & Joy," a sitcom about friends dealing with parenthood and careers, also arrives that night.
"In the House," starring rapper L. L. Cool J -- the series scheduled to replace "Blossom" on Mondays -- makes its debut April 3. NBC thinks the audience from former rap star Will Smith in "The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air" will flow nicely into "In the House."
NBC's one new drama, "Amazing Grace," starring Duke as a minister in a small town in the Pacific Northwest, premieres April 1. NBC is hoping it will be the new Saturday night lead-in to "Dr. Quinn."
Top-rated ABC has only one new series -- "Extreme," with Brolin, which takes over the Thursday night slot previously held by "My So-Called Life."
"It's a small number of new series, because we have such a strong regular series schedule," says ABC entertainment president Ted Harbert. "We just didn't feel a need or really a desire to have a long list of backup shows for the second season. That's not the way we do business."
In the end, though, the second season is not only about the business of ratings and scheduling. Several of the series have the potential to tell viewers something important about themselves.
CBS' "Under One Roof," for example, could turn out to be one of the most significant series of the 1990s in terms of how African-Americans are portrayed. It's the first black family drama since Bernie Casey's "Harris & Co." (1979) and Alex Haley's "Palmerstown" (1980-1981).
Why haven't there been more black family dramas? Thomas Carter, the show's executive producer, says the dominant white culture of television has allowed blacks to appear only in certain roles -- such as cops, crooks, small children, hip-hop teen-agers and entertainers. More normal, representative types need not apply.
"There is absolutely a certain amount of racism," Carter says. "Sometimes, it's not that kind of overt racism. Sometimes, it's de facto racism, a sort of subliminal racism."
The pilot for "Under One Roof" is a strong one. But CBS has only ordered six episodes, so the series is clearly only on tryout. It will be interesting to see how both black and white viewers react to "Under One Roof" as compared to the hip-hop NBC sitcom "In the House." The sitcom's lead-in, "The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air," is the highest-rated show on television among black viewers.
The positive portrayal of working class values and concerns in Fox's "The Great Defender" and CBS' "The Office" are also worth attention. The networks usually ignore the blue-collar world because working-class settings are not advertising-friendly environments. Watching "Roc," for example, did not encourage viewers to buy into upward mobility the way watching "The Cosby Show," with all its upper-middle-class amenities, did.
But the industry wants to connect with what viewers are feeling, especially now, as more Americans question whether they are still enjoying a middle-class standard of living.
"We very much feel that sensibility," says NBC's Littlefield. "I think it's a time for a lot of Americans where it's very, very tough out there. . . . There's a sense out there of, 'How am I going to make it?' "
If the series that feature blue- or pink-collar characters find an audience this spring, look for more of them next fall. That same test-marketing mind-set also goes for NBC's "Amazing Grace" series, which deals with the spiritual life of a small community. David Kelley, the producer of "Picket Fences," already has another series in the works about a minister for Fox.
"We look at what the audience is telling us about," says Littlefield. "You know, 'Why is network television avoiding religion?'
"It's something that, across America, they seem to be seeking out more strongly than ever before. And this show, specifically, is an effort to be more in touch, . . . [to] see if we can address that need."