LOS ANGELES -- Last fall, it seemed everyone in network television wanted to be "Friends." But in their single-minded pursuit to create the next hip series for young adults, the networks instead made enemies of viewers from the baby boom generation.
At the halfway point of this television season, that's the big story: Network ratings are down across the board, with viewers rejecting all but a few of some 40 new series. As a result, each of the networks is reconsidering its demographic strategy.
"Basically, this fall, we said to our core audience, 'If you're 35 or older, get lost,' " said Leslie Moonves, the president of CBS Entertainment. "That was the wrong message to put out there, you know. We are no longer going to do shows geared to 25-year-olds. We are going to deal in fairly traditional genres and put somewhat of a new spin on them."
CBS, the third-place network, failed miserably by chasing after young viewers. But each of the networks erred in similar ways.
Ted Harbert, the president of ABC Entertainment, said the big problem last fall was "all the networks trying too many situation comedies aimed at the 18- to-49-year-old audience" -- the demographic most desired by advertisers.
"The result is the harsh reality of all these new shows, most of them trying to go after the same audience, and the audience saying, 'Huh? I can't keep them straight from each other, and therefore I'm going to reject a lot of them,' " Harbert said. "My strong belief is that, in network television, sameness kills."
The networks' admission that mistakes were made is in stark contrast to the tune they were whistling six months ago. At the summer press tour in July, they showcased one sitcom after another featuring young, single, sexy adults in titles like "It Had to Be You" and "Can't Hurry Love."
That strategy of copying NBC's mega-hit "Friends" is absent on the winter press tour, which ends today. Instead, the networks are highlighting long-running series with broad demographic appeal, like ABC's "Home Improvement." It's no accident that the biggest news from the Big Three networks were surprise renewals for next fall of such shows as NBC's "Seinfeld," CBS' "Murphy Brown" and ABC's "Roseanne."
Normally, renewals are not announced until May. But the networks have scrambled to keep them on the air for another year in an attempt to stem audience erosion. They made the announcements as soon as they could to tell viewers they got the message.
It's also no accident that those shows all feature stars from the baby boomer demographic. The heaviest viewer tune-out this year has come from baby boomers. Many viewers in that age group have turned to cable channels, like A&E; and such #F productions as last week's lavish "Pride and Prejudice," to find what the networks no longer offer.
"We are almost viewing the defection to cable as sort of good news in that at least there's the possibility of getting them back, as opposed to having lost them to some of our competitors," Moonves said.
But that may be wishful thinking. For many upscale baby boomers, the broadcast networks now appear to be the third or fourth choice on Sunday nights -- after British imports on A&E;, "Masterpiece Theatre" on PBS and sports on ESPN -- according to figures from A.C. Nielsen. Sunday is traditionally the night with the largest television audience.
The ultimate goal of the networks is to have more shows like "Seinfeld," "Roseanne," "Murphy Brown" and "Home Improvement." Such shows appeal not only to the target 18-to-49-year-old audience, but to other age groups as well.
"This is what broadcasting is all about, and appealing to that kind of broad spectrum is our focus," said Warren Littlefield, president of NBC Entertainment.
Right now, NBC and ABC have more of these kinds of shows than anyone else, which is why they are the more profitable networks.
One way to achieve that broad appeal is through successful family dramas and sitcoms that feature characters from various age groups. The networks will try out such shows during the second half of the season. Next month, for example, ABC will introduce "Second Noah," a family drama from Brandon Tartikoff airing at 8 Monday nights.
"The plan for the future is as follows: We will not abandon the family audience," said ABC's Harbert. "The hardest thing for a television show to do is what 'Home Improvement' does, which is appeal to adults, teens and kids all at the same time. 'Second Noah' tries to do that."
NBC thinks it has a new sitcom with the same kind of broad appeal: "Third Rock From the Sun," with John Lithgow, which premiered two weeks ago to strong ratings on Tuesday nights.
And CBS is hoping Bill Cosby can come up with such a sitcom for it by next fall.
"I don't think there's anybody who transcends demographics in comedy like Bill Cosby," Moonves said. "Whether you're a 6-year-old kid or a 70-year-old grandma, America loves Bill Cosby."
But, as Harbert noted, creating all-demographics hit shows is a long shot. The most immediate changes viewers will see are fewer young-adult sitcoms and more older stars, especially those of the baby boomer generation.
In series television, for example, Don Johnson will be in "Nash Bridges," while Raquel Welch replaces Mariel Hemingway in "Central Park West." In sweeps movies and miniseries, the big names will include Ted Danson, Farrah Fawcett and Alan Alda.
Even Fox, the "cool like us" twentysomething network, is getting into the act, with Carroll O'Connor joining "Party of Five" Jan. 31 in a recurring role as grandfather to the Salinger kids.
"One of our goals is to broaden our base by attracting older viewers, and we think Carroll O'Connor will bring that whole new component to the show," John Matoian, president of Fox Entertainment, said last week.
Of all such moves, it will be most interesting to see how Tom Selleck is treated in the Feb. 8 episode of NBC's "Friends," which will feature him playing a doctor to whom Monica (Courteney Cox) finds herself romantically attracted. NBC's press release describes Selleck's character as "the --ing Dr. Richard Burke" and says "Passion unexpectedly flares between him and Monica even though the good doctor is old enough to be her father."
Will Selleck's character be mocked the way Monica's father, played by boomer icon Elliott Gould, has been mocked on the show? Or will he be treated as someone to be taken seriously, perhaps even desired by Monica? Will this generational interface reflect the networks' renewed commitment to courting boomers?
As the second season wears on, the ultimate question might be: Will the new network strategy work? Can boomers and other older viewers, having been told six months ago to get lost, be lured back?
Privately, network executives this week acknowledge they underestimated the independence of baby boomer viewers. They didn't anticipate boomers' unwillingness to behave like their parents' generation, which remained loyal to network television even though they saw fewer representations of themselves on the tube once they moved into middle age.
"You know, with the advent of the baby boomer this year being 50 years old," Moonves said, "maybe it's time for the thinking to change."