After a couple of seasons perfecting excuses as to why their new drama series--which invariably starred men and involved guns, swearing and/or bare bottoms--weren't catching on with TV viewers (who are mostly women), broadcast network suits (almost exclusively male) have stumbled onto what viewers actually want to see these days.
"Judging Amy," CBS's warm and fuzzy one-hour series, is the star of the new TV season. Amy Brenneman plays a young attorney who divorces hubby, flees Manhattan for small-town life with young daughter in tow, and moves back in with retired-judge Mom (Tyne Daly). "Amy" ranks No. 13 among all television programs this season; it's the second most watched new series. Among new programs, "Amy" falls behind only NBC's new Thursday sitcom, "Stark Raving Mad," and--no offense to "Mad" creator Steve Levitan--you could pretty much schedule a half-hour of grass growing between "Frasier" and "ER" and end up with the season's most watched new show.
TV critics--another boys' club--are surprised by "Amy's" success. But then, they're the same bunch who were dumbfounded last January when viewers by the millions ignored their uniformly scathing reviews of the debuting chick drama "Providence" and made the NBC program the "surprise" hit of last season. Also among the surprised were NBC suits, who had shown little confidence in the show last season, yanking it off the fall lineup during the schedule-setting process and sending it to the midseason bench.
Now usually, when a network lands itself a hit, it spends the next couple of seasons cloning it to death. NBC, for instance, made an art form out of mass-producing sitcoms about single women in the publishing industry, after promising early numbers on "Caroline in the City," which led to "Suddenly Susan," "Veronica's Closet," "Just Shoot Me," etc.
But on NBC's schedule this fall--no "Providence" clones. What's up with that?
It's about hipness. "Providence" hasn't got it. "Providence" is the anti-hip. It's sweet, it's gushy, it has sick puppies. At NBC, if you are not hip, you might as well be dead. Same goes for ABC, Fox, WB and UPN. Hip these days means "Dawson's Creek"; hip means chasing viewers in their teens and twenties and certainly no one over 34.
Then there's CBS. CBS hasn't seen hip in ages. CBS almost went out of business trying to get its groove back--remember "Central Park West," remember "Michael Hayes."
But these days CBS is embracing unhipness. CBS Television CEO Leslie Moonves has actually made the network's unhipness a very cool thing. He loves to tell advertisers that more of their precious viewers in the 18-49 age bracket are watching his geezer show "Diagnosis Murder" than WB's "Dawson's Creek" and see the look on the ad guys' faces.
Moonves also loves "Judging Amy"--calling it "the perfect CBS show."
And "Providence" "is really much more of a CBS show," Moonves says with pride.
But "Amy" isn't CBS's only early drama-series success in the Season of Girls Rule. "Family Law" is pulling in 41 percent more viewers on Monday at 10 p.m. than CBS was getting there this time last year with "L.A. Doctors"--one of those dramas starring men that were supposed to be irresistible to women but weren't.
"Family Law" stars Kathleen Quinlan as an attorney who starts up her own firm after getting dumped by her hubby/law partner and takes on mostly cases involving child victims, the rights to the family puppy's ashes, beached whales--stuff that'll make you weep.
Meanwhile, ABC took a stab at a more sophisticated chick drama with "Once and Again," starring Sela Ward. The show, from the kings of angst Marshall Herskovitz and Ed Zwick, came out roaring in September with a debut audience of nearly 17 million and the biggest debut rating among adults aged 18-49 on any network in four years. But the relationship show has cooled off since then as time-slot competitor "Amy" has gained steam.
"Amy" is so big now, she's even taken out "NYPD Blue." ABC execs are so worried about "Amy" that last week they told cop-drama maestro Steven Bochco that his show probably isn't going to get its old Tuesday 10 p.m. time slot back in November, as originally planned. The ABC suits feel they need to keep "Once and Again" there to snare some of the female audience and keep "Amy" from skyrocketing. And they're afraid that, given the choice of cop-drama "Blue" or "Amy" on Tuesdays at 10 p.m., women will chose "Amy." "Blue," which has been losing viewers slowly but steadily for a few seasons, has historically had an audience that's about 50 percent female.
This makes "Amy" executive producer Barbara Hall particularly happy. She says she's proud that her show has become a success without "gimmicks." That's a euphemism for bare bottoms and no-no words, which Bochco made standard stuff on his show in an effort to lure viewers. Last week's news was particularly delicious, since "Amy" lead Brenneman did a turn as one of the bottom-baring girls of "NYPD Blue."
An angry Bochco has said he wants ABC to cancel "Blue" so he can sell it elsewhere. That prompted NBC Entertainment President Garth Ancier, appearing on CNN Friday, to say that if ABC would actually agree to such a deal, he'd love to give "Blue" his network's Tuesday 10 p.m. time slot.
Small wonder--NBC's Tuesday 10 p.m. edition of "Dateline" has plunged 36 percent among that network's darling 18-49ers this season, as young women bail out in favor of the slot's two chick dramas.
CAPTION: CBS, hitting it big with chick dramas: Amy Brenneman, above, in "Judging Amy"; Julie Warner, left, Kathleen Quinlan and Dixie Carter star in "Family Law."