Prime examples For laughs and drama, the TV networks are way behind schedule. But we make, and mark, the best oif a bad season.

THE BALTIMORE SUN

How bad is the new network season?

"It's so bad that we can't even bring ourselves to officially cancel Tony Danza's show and put it out of its misery," an NBC executive joked last week about a series that was sent on hiatus after three episodes played to horrible ratings and vicious reviews.

"Given the level of the other new stuff this fall, there might yet be hope -- even for Tony."

This is the time of the year when reality starts to set in for Hollywood producers and network programmers. With November sweeps ending last week, they are afforded their first relatively clear look across the prime-time landscape, and they don't like much of what they are seeing.

The networks have lost more than 2.5 million viewers compared with last year at this time, and most of the new series have failed to deliver the audiences that ABC, NBC, CBS and Fox promised advertisers, who paid record prices for up-front buys.

As was predicted here in September, hits are few, and also-rans are all over the place. A consensus is crystallizing into conventional wisdom that the new season is a bust.

But wait a minute. That's all numbers -- Nielsen ratings and advertising dollars -- television as business. What about television as culture -- the way it's representing our world and the sense we are making of those representations?

In this regard, I say we are having a pretty good year. In fact, to paraphrase the Chinese, we are living in highly interesting prime times, and we shouldn't let conventional wisdom blind us to the pleasure and meaning that millions of us find nightly in front of the tube with priests, angels, lesbians, single dads, families without parents, mismatched lovers, hippie parents, young lawyers and old friends.

You already know what's wrong with the new season. Here are some of the positive trends, promising new shows, revitalized series and performers who are delivering the goods -- along with just enough Nielsen algebra to get a fix on the future of favorites such as "Homicide: Life on the Street":

Priests and angels

The boom in prime-time religion isn't new this season. When "Touched By An Angel" became the first overtly religious program to crack the Nielsen Top 10 last November, you didn't need the Psychic Friends Network to know religion was going to be cloned all over the schedule this year.

While most of the religious matter in a series like Dan Aykroyd's "Soul Man," for example, isn't exactly the stuff of rigorous moral discourse, television is validating and celebrating the spiritual nightly with shows like "Promised Land" and "Touched By An Angel."

Furthermore, the new ABC series "Nothing Sacred," about an inner-city priest, has led to serious debate among Catholics about their church.

The conservative Catholic League attacked the series and launched an advertiser boycott in July, before the first episode even aired. But, once they saw the series, more liberal voices in the church -- like the Washington-based Catholics for a Free Choice -- responded with their own campaigns in support of the show. Last week, Advertising Age magazine carried a full-page ad of support that was signed by prominent Catholic clergy.

"Nothing Sacred" is one of the lowest-rated series in all of prime time. In its most recent outing two weeks ago, it ranked 90th out of 118 shows. But it still has an audience of 6.9 million viewers and has managed to spark informed debate on matters ranging from abortion to the social conscience of clergy, while reminding all of us that the Catholic Church is not monolithic.

Despite the low ratings, struggling ABC has picked up the series for the rest of the season, which means the Catholic League will have Father Ray (Kevin Anderson) to kick around at least until May. The debate will continue, and those of us who pay attention will be a little smarter about the Catholic Church today.

'Ellen' is special

Another important debate is the one surrounding ABC's "Ellen."

If you saw the inspired episode with Emma Thompson two weeks ago, you know the questions from last year as to what Ellen DeGeneres could possibly do with the show once she came out as a lesbian have been put to rest. She has bad weeks, like the episode in October that featured her character, Ellen Morgan, as a Civil War re-enactor. But when it works, as it did with Thompson, "Ellen" is traveling in "I Love Lucy" country.

DeGeneres and ABC have been at loggerheads over a warning ABC puts on most "Ellen" episodes about the sexual content -- a warning that other ABC series featuring far more explicit heterosexual subject matter (like Drew Carey stripping off his clothes) aren't tagged with.

Last week, Ellen Morgan contemplated sleeping with a woman for the first time. Rest assured, the bedroom scene is going to happen before the season ends, and sexual orientation is going to be on the front burner of public discussion as a result.

That's a debate that cuts straight to the heart of our culture wars. "Ellen" has already led to the president and vice president of the United States weighing in on the matter.

I think we are privileged to have both "Ellen," the series, and Ellen," the debate over sexual orientation, in our lives this season. This is the one series from 1997 that media historians are still going to be writing about 50 years from now.

A bit of Disney magic

The most important cultural moment of the season might have already happened with the airing earlier this month of "Cinderella" on ABC's "The Wonderful World of Disney."

Forget the ratings triumph of 30 million viewers, despite such competition as "60 Minutes" on CBS; what's landmark about this production is the synthesis it forged among cultures and ethnicities.

"Cinderella" proved popular culture doesn't have to be European or African; it can be European and African -- and Asian and Hispanic, too, for that matter.

The European-based music of Rodgers and Hammerstein, the African-American actresses Brandy and Whitney Houston in leading roles, and a cast led by Paolo Montalban featuring skin colors of every hue made for one of the first artifacts of American popular culture to transcend the black/white dialectic we've been locked in since the first African slave ship touched these shores.

Good for you, Disney.

Burns did it, too

Ken Burns pulled off a similar synthesis of cultural perspectives in "Lewis & Clark," managing to tell that history mainly as an action-adventure story through the eyes of the white, male explorers. But he also helped us see them through the eyes of Native American men and women as agents of empire.

In a Sun interview, Burns said he was trying to find a common, middle ground for television history in the culture wars -- somewhere between the extremists on one side who denounce all forms of multiculturalism and those on the other who trash all things European. He might not have found it, but he's come closer than anyone else.

While the reviews of "Lewis & Clark" were mixed, it won the largest audience for any PBS production since "The Civil War." That means it topped Burns' "Baseball," in addition to everything else ever aired on PBS. It was one of the few triumphs of any kind for PBS this fall, which is struggling with its "Mystery" and "Masterpiece Theatre" series.

Smells like a hit.

The highest-rated new comedy is NBC's "Veronica's Closet," while CBS' "Brooklyn South" is the No. 1 Nielsen drama.

I hate "Veronica's Closet," and if it weren't for "Friends" and "Seinfeld," I guarantee it would be doing every bit as well as most of NBC's new sitcom bombs, like Jenny McCarthy's "Jenny." "Brooklyn South," meanwhile, is finding itself, and the smart money says that when "Monday Night Football" ends on ABC, Steven Bochco's going to have another keeper in his first outing for CBS.

The second most successful drama so far is Fox's "Ally McBeal." It is finishing fourth in its Monday time period behind "Monday Night Football," "Cybill" (CBS) and "Caroline in the City" (NBC), but it is holding the "Melrose Place" audience of young adults -- something no other series has been able to do for Fox. Score another victory for executive producer David Kelley.

Score a hit, too, for executive producer Mike Judge, of "Beavis and Butt-head" fame, who has given Fox its long-sought companion piece to "The Simpsons" on Sunday in "King of The Hill." Fox is looking good this fall thanks to Kelley and Judge.

Monday's king of the hill

Outside of football, the highest rated series among all the big-ticket programs on Monday is CBS' "Cosby." The series thoroughly dominates its time period and consistently finishes in the Nielsen Top 20 with an audience of 16 million viewers.

I like what Bill Cosby has done with the show this year, bringing characters in their 20s into his home and violating the fourth wall speak directly to us on matters of generation and gender. Cosby deserves more recognition.

More Monday.

The flop of the night is NBC's "Women Who Work" strategy: "Suddenly Susan," "Fired Up," "Caroline in the City" and "The Naked Truth." None wins its time period, and by the time you get to Tea Leoni at 9: 30, NBC is in fourth place.

Maybe it is time to retire the Mary Richards paradigm after 27 years and find a new image for women today.

New image for guys

One of the more promising trends of the new season involves men who are defined in a large way by their skills as parents rather than what they do in the workplace.

The poster guy here is Gregory Hines in "The Gregory Hines Show," an intelligent and funny sitcom lost on Friday nights. Look for CBS to move it to Mondays with "Cosby" and "Everybody Loves Raymond."

Even loner hero types like David Caruso's Michael Hayes are given relationships in which they can function as "dads." "Michael Hayes," by the way, is struggling in the ratings, which just breaks your heart, because Caruso is such a modest and nice guy.

Another great guy.

Maybe there is some ratings justice after all. The lowest-rated show of the season is "Hitz" (UPN), starring another great human being, Andrew (Dice) Clay.

I know, "Shut your pie hole, snapper head."

Or maybe not.

But where's the ratings justice with "Homicide"? NBC Entertainment president Warren Littlefield told The Sun that "Homicide" has to beat "Nash Bridges" to get renewed, and that has not been happening, except for the week of the crossover with "Law & Order" this month.

The series has rejuvenated itself with a team of fine writers and producers. Time to pray for some ratings magic.

The newsmag rag

Meanwhile, the network newsmagazines are going stronger than ever. When I first wrote in 1991 that newsmagazines, not the evening news, were the future of network news, even I didn't think there would be this many in 1997 winning audiences this big.

Week in and week out, each of the Big Three has a newsmagazine in the Top 20: "60 Minutes" (CBS), "20/20" (ABC) and "Dateline NBC." And they still cost a lot less than producing drama -- even a low-rated drama like "Nothing Sacred."

Having it both ways.

You can have quality and ratings. Look at "NYPD Blue" on ABC or "Law & Order" on NBC -- series that are again in top form.

Or, how about "Party of Five" on Fox? Maybe you knew it was beating "3rd Rock From the Sun" in its time period on Wednesday, but have you checked it out for quality lately? I did. Two weeks ago, I watched the episode in which Charlie (Matthew Fox) finds out he has cancer. It was the start of a story arc.

I didn't know it was going to be about cancer. If I had, I probably would not have watched, since the next morning, I would be helping to bury my mother, who had just died of cancer.

But I found tremendous comfort on the eve of that sad passage in watching Charlie and the Salinger clan as they heard their number being called by the disease. It was a comfort I never expected to find on television, let alone Fox, and I am now the new, best, No. 1 fan of "Party of Five."

How bad is the new season?

Not bad at all, if you ask me.

Pub Date: 12/01/97

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