ABC decided to stop the killing yesterday, announcing it will move Steven Bochco's "Murder One" away from a disastrous Thursday night matchup against NBC's "ER," the top-rated series on network television.
Following this week's "Chapter Eight" episode, the critically acclaimed legal drama will be pulled from the schedule, to be relaunched Jan. 8 in the 10 p.m. Monday night time period now occupied by "ABC Monday Night Football."
As for why he scheduled the series against "ER" in the first place, ABC Entertainment President Ted Harbert yesterday issued a statement saying, "It seemed like a good idea at the time. We fought the good fight and now we look to take advantage of the 10 p.m. time period that was not available in the fall. We remain confident that this excellent series can find the audience it deserves."
Harbert declined further comment on "Murder One" and the deeper questions about its future that beg to be asked.
Is it already too late to save this series? With an upfront commitment to buy 23 episodes for $30 million, is ABC in danger of having one of the most expensive busts of the decade? Why would you commit so much money to a drama that's based on following one trial all season rather than the more traditional route of a new trial each week? And, why do networks make such seemingly bizarre scheduling moves as "Murder One" vs. "ER" anyway?
This is not an isolated case. In fact, it happens with such regularity that viewers have come to expect at least one maddening, head-to-head matchup of quality prime-time television series almost every season.
Last year, it was ABC's "Home Improvement" vs. NBC's "Frasier," with CBS's "Chicago Hope" hopelessly mismatched against NBC's "ER." And what about Harbert's sending off "My So-Called Life" to battle NBC's "Mad About You" and "Friends"?
You can track such suicidal scheduling back at least as far as 1963, when CBS scored a coup of getting Judy Garland to do a weekly variety show -- then put it up against NBC's "Bonanza," which was in the third season of what would be an unprecedented 11-year run of owning its time period on Sunday night. By the end of the year, "The Judy Garland Show" was a costly and sad piece of television history.
This year the pattern was being played on Thursdays, with viewers opting for Dr. Douglas Ross (George Clooney) and the emergency room of "ER" over attorney Ted Hoffman (Daniel Benzali) and the courtroom of "Murder One" by a ratio of 5-to-1. And the gap was growing, according to A. . Nielsen ratings. Last Thursday, 41 million viewers watched "ER," while only 8 million tuned in to "Murder One."
Even ABC's affiliates were starting to tell the network to make the move.
"Keeping it in that time period is just a terrible waste of a very good show," said Joe Lewin, vice president and general manager of WMAR (Channel 2), Baltimore's ABC affiliate. "ABC never promised us that 'Murder One' was going to beat 'ER,' but they did expect to put a dent in it. And that just hasn't happened."
Putting a dent in "ER" was the "good idea" Harbert alluded to in yesterday's statement.
At the start of the season, Harbert said that to understand the scheduling of "Murder One" you had to view it in context of the larger prime-time battle between ABC and NBC for first place overall in prime-time ratings. If ABC didn't put strong shows on against NBC's killer Thursday lineup, he said, the Peacock network would roll up such huge ratings it would carry them to victory for the entire week.
"The fact of the matter is that we just do not have the stomach to let 'ER' run unopposed," Harbert said. "We must hold down 'ER.' In 'Murder One,' we have what we think is a rather big gun to do that."
Harbert also thought he had just the plan to make sure "Murder One" brought ratings power to Thursdays at 10: He'd run it for the first three weeks of the season at 10 Tuesday nights in the protected time slot of another Bochco production, "NYPD." As a bonus ABC, would have three extra episodes of "NYPD Blue" to air later in the year.
"Murder One" did break fast out of the gate. Aided by across-the-board critical acclaim, it finished in Nielsen's Top 30 series the first three weeks.
But once "Murder One" moved to its regular time period opposite on Oct. 12, the bottom fell out and it became "Murder Three" -- finishing behind not only "ER" but also CBS's sorry "New York News" on occasion.
ABC tried an advertising campaign urging viewers to tape "Murder One" while watching "ER" -- the first time a network had urged viewers to tape instead of watching its show. According to Nielsen, though, no significant taping took place. Finally, Harbert had no choice.
Yesterday's statement makes it look like the "Murder One" story is only a matter of scheduling. The intended spin: There is nothing wrong with the series. It's a ratings disaster only because it was scheduled against "ER." Now that it will be on Mondays, it'll be fine.
(Ironically, then it will be up against CBS' "Chicago Hope," now a ratings winner since it moved away from its confrontation with "ER.")
But there's a larger question that ABC doesn't want to discuss: What if the ratings problems of "Murder One" are not simply a matter of scheduling? What if viewers just don't care if Neil Avedon (Jason Gedrick) killed anyone or, if he did, whether or not he gets off?
"Murder One" was the best pilot of the new season, but much of the buzz it generated in September came from the fact it was launching just as the O. J. Simpson trial was arriving at the finish line to peak national interest. The series promised to give viewers a backstage look at celebrity clients, dream-team lawyers, Los Angeles cops and the media circus to which they all played.
As with most media manias, though, who cares any more about Simpson or the circus of his trial? Part of it is "been there, done that." But another part of it is that, given the way the Simpson trial ended and what it might say about us, who wants to watch a show that reminds them of it every week?
Meanwhile, the single, Simpson-like, celebrity murder trial is the only story "Murder One" has.
Bochco declined to be interviewed, but at the start of the season he said that by the time episode seven aired (which happened last week), he would already have filmed episode 14.
As Bochco put it, "By that time, I think the die is cast."