Top-rated ABC yesterday announced a fall schedule so conservative and seemingly uninspired that the biggest news is what isn't on it: The critically acclaimed, cutting-edge "My So-Called Life," starring Claire Danes and Baltimore native Bess Armstrong.
"It wasn't completely a shock, because, obviously, we were prepared for things not working out the way we wanted them to," Armstrong said yesterday in a telephone interview.
"But what was particularly disheartening to all of us was that in recent weeks ABC executives had really gone out of their way to intimate that it [renewal] was practically a shoo-in. . . . The pressure from fans never stopped. Just two weeks ago, they had received 12,000 letters and phone calls because of the MTV run."
After the show went off the air in January, MTV purchased the rights to air it in rerun and has been doing so since April.
Armstrong declined comment on reports that one of the reasons ABC canceled the series was that Danes' agent told the network that the teen actress, who appeared recently in the film "Little Women," was more interested in doing feature films than returning to the show.
Anne Marie Riccitelli, a network spokeswoman, said the decision on "My So-Called Life" was "one of the most difficult ever faced" by the ABC Entertainment division.
"It remained a contender for the fall schedule until the very end due to the pride we had in carrying the series, as well as the support expressed by its audience," she said, adding:
"Unfortunately, the performance of 'My So-Called Life' last season and all indications for the future suggest that its appeal was far too narrow."
The series finished 116 out of 146 prime-time shows this season, according to A. C. Nielsen. Worse, it also finished 116th in the key 18-to-49-year-old demographic. Nielsen figures were not available for how the series has fared in rerun on MTV in recent weeks.
There were other ABC cancellations of note: "Me and the Boys," Margaret's Cho's "All-American Girl," "Sister, Sister," "The Commish" and "Day One," a newsmagazine that ABC News itself never seemed to understand. The first three series were among shows cited last fall as evidence of more racial diversity in network television.
On Monday, NBC canceled two series -- Bill Cosby's "The Cosby Mysteries" and Cicely Tyson's "Sweet Justice" -- also previously cited as part of the trend toward a more diverse television landscape.
ABC is simply taking no risks with its schedule. There are no big moves, like NBC's decision to put "Mad About You" on Sundays this fall.
Maybe this says it all: While ABC canceled "My So-Called Life," it renewed the hoary "America's Funniest Home Videos." The network is also recycling one-time stars, such as Tony Danza, William Devane, Marie Osmond, Betty White and Mark Harmon.
ABC's five new prime-time sitcoms are:
* "Hudson Street," starring Danza as a divorced cop and Lori Loughlin ("Full House") as an idealistic reporter. It gets the golden time slot at 8:30 p.m. Tuesdays between "Roseanne" and "Home Improvement."
* "The Drew Carey Show" is supposed to be a blue-collar version of "Friends." It gets the second-best time period -- Wednesdays at 8:30 p.m. between "Ellen" and "Grace Under Fire."
* "Wilde Again" features Tea Leoni, of the failed Fox sitcom "Flying Blind." Leoni plays a socialite who must go to work as a tabloid photographer after her divorce. It airs after "Grace Under Fire."
* "Maybe This Time" is the Marie Osmond sitcom, with Betty White playing Osmond's mom. It airs Saturdays at 8 p.m.
* "Somewhere in America" is a sitcom built around Jeff ("You Know You're a Redneck If . . .") Foxworthy. It airs Saturdays at 8:30 p.m.
The three new dramas are:
* "Charlie Grace" is a private-eye drama starring Mark Harmon. It airs Thursdays at 8 p.m. in the slot "My So-Called Life" occupied at the start of this television season.
* "The Monroes" has shades of "Dynasty," with Devane as the patriarch of a rich and powerful family with political ambitions.
* "Murder One" is the one potentially innovative series on the ABC schedule. It's from Steven Bochco and will attempt to present one fictional murder case in serialized form for an entire season. "Murder One" will air Thursday nights at 10 opposite "ER" on NBC.
CBS is expected to announce its fall schedule on Friday.