While the broadcast networks have been tripping all over in their race to secure rights to rock-and-roll and special effects sweeps extravaganzas, a remake of a saccharine musical based on a 75-year-old comic strip about a little orphan girl and starring mostly people you've probably never heard of has emerged as the King Kong of the November ratings derby.
Nearly 27 million sets of eyeballs were glued to the "Wonderful World of Disney" Sunday night to see ABC's "Annie." That included nearly half of the nation's TV-watching kids and about a quarter of the country's young women who were watching TV from 7 to 9 p.m. Guys stayed away because it starred no sports figures, wasn't violent and featured no naked backsides, and the strongest language was Daddy Warbucks's use of the word "darned."
But who needs 'em. "Annie" got a bigger audience than any game of this year's World Series, which had a lot more free publicity on the sports pages of nearly every newspaper in the country, thank you very much, plus all that network TV and local station sports coverage.
In fact, only two programs have scored a bigger audience than "Annie" so far this TV season: "ER" and "Friends." That's it.
In the presence of "Annie's" ratings greatness, Part 1 of NBC's "Leprechauns" miniseries could only conjure a wee audience of 15.2 million and CBS's "Shake, Rattle & Roll" mini jostled just 13.4 million.
Yes, "Annie" was huge, even beating the return of summer sensation "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire." The quiz show was no ratings slouch either, cornering an audience of 26 million--nearly 4 million better than its best summer audience.
That should put to rest any argument that the Regis Philbin-hosted "Millionaire" can prosper only against summer reruns. Philbin's competition on Sunday had included the highly touted CBS and NBC miniseries, as well as the season debut of "The X-Files," which scared up only about 17.7 million viewers-- considerably fewer than last year's debut audience of 20.4 million.
This makes ABC suits very happy; they've scheduled the game show on 15 consecutive nights during the November sweeps, when ratings are used to set local stations' advertising rates.
"Millionaire's" Sunday 9-10 p.m. debut had Fox's knockoff quiz show "Greed" eating its dust. "Greed," which debuted last Thursday, bagged nearly 10 million viewers. But Fox suits were pleased nonetheless; their network had been averaging an anemic 5 million watchers on Thursday nights this fall, and sometimes the network finished sixth in Thursday time slots in a six-way race.
Fox has scheduled the Chuck Woolery-hosted game show on three consecutive Thursdays during the November ratings race.
WETA and the Freedom Forum have turned the lights out at the Forum Network, a local public affairs channel, before it ever saw the light of day.
Freedom Forum Chairman and CEO Charles Overby said he had no choice but to scrap plans to develop the network when Comcast Corp., which controls nearly all of the cable systems in the Washington area, informed him late last month that it would not air the network full time in this market.
Comcast had agreed to run the network four hours a day, seven days a week, which Overby refused based on his "concept" of running the network full time.
Comcast's stranglehold in D.C. will soon include the District's cable system, District Cablevision, which it will acquire as part of an agreement to end a bidding war with AT&T for MediaOne.
"Comcast is a 500-pound gorilla in Washington," Overby told The Washington Post's John Maynard. "I believe Comcast thought of us as just one more PBS station in the market."
WETA President and CEO Sharon Percy Rockefeller said she is "disappointed because for the last year we've been moving forward with the presumption" that Forum Network would be carried full time on Comcast's systems. "We geared up for a much more major investment in funding and programming," she said.
The network, based at Freedom Forum's Newseum in Arlington, has had a number of stumbling blocks since plans for it were unveiled in January. The network's spring debut was postponed to fall and then again to February. Just recently, Ed Turner, the well-respected former executive vice president for news at CNN, resigned as president of the network. At that time, a Forum Network spokeswoman said he had bowed out because of "differences in management styles" with the network's board. Turner was replaced by Jack Hurley, vice president of broadcasting for the Freedom Forum.
Overby insisted that Comcast's refusal to carry the network full time was not related to Turner's resignation, adding, "They can give their own reasons. I think they never fully appreciated the creative partnership between WETA and the Freedom Forum."
A Comcast official did not return calls.
Overby also dismissed the idea that the city, home to C-SPAN as well as countless talking-head programs, is not ready for another public affairs channel. "I think that in the D.C. market there is an appetite for creative public affairs programming and I think Comcast has misjudged that market," he said. "Whether there is an appetite nationwide is another issue."
CBS News scrambled yesterday to change its upcoming "60 Minutes II" segment on Bill Gates following a judge's finding that Microsoft misused its monopoly power.
The story, based on interviews with Gates conducted by Charlie Rose over the past few months, is scheduled to air tonight. CBS had been touting the interview as a glimpse into the billionaire's personal life.
Gone is the soft opening with Gates and Rose going to a Seattle hamburger joint and talking about what it's like to be the world's richest man. Replacing it is a hard news lead discussing the government's case against Microsoft, "60 Minutes II" executive producer Jeff Fager told the Associated Press.
Still, the segment will not include anything from Gates that wasn't taped before the judge's decision.
"We would have been in trouble if the judge had thrown the whole thing out," Fager said. "We would have had to redo the piece and throw half of it out."
CBS knew its "60 Minutes II" piece would run either a few days before or after U.S. District Judge Thomas Penfield Jackson issued his decision, but the news division wanted to get in the segment during the November sweeps.
CAPTION: Alicia Morton, left, and Kathy Bates in "Annie," a winner for ABC.