It's tough to focus on the broadcast networks' new lineups when all the excitement is over at their executive offices.
Nobody's sure just who's in charge at ABC since Disney merged the network with the studio's TV production unit and tossed out ABC's programming whiz, Jamie Tarses. No wonder it's taking ABC suits so long to decide how to bring back the wildly successful game show "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?," which is arguably the first hit of the 1999-2000 TV season, though it came and went in August and the prime-time season doesn't officially kick in until tomorrow.
News that CBS would merge with Viacom, which already owns Paramount, has thrown into question the future of Paramount's struggling UPN, because the Telecommunications Act of 1996 prohibits a single company from owning two broadcast networks. Viacom is going to play the race card in an effort to hang on to the fledgling net. You know: America needs UPN because it's actually got a few shows in its prime-time lineup with African American actors in them.
WB is operating without its programming ace Garth Ancier, who bailed out last spring to go to NBC. NBC, meanwhile, is now the only network not owned by a studio. And though NBC parent General Electric says the company will go it alone, that assertion has been greeted with some skepticism.
And at Fox? The executive suite at that network is always a hotbed of intrigue; it is, after all, the network that spits out its entertainment division chief every two years. And the network's new programming chief, Doug Herzog, is really on the hot seat now, what with boss Rupert Murdoch getting slapped with Virtue Czar William Bennett's Silver Sewer Award over two of Herzog's controversial new shows: "Action" and "Get Real."
When not playing office politics, the networks' programming executives also spent some time putting together their new prime-time schedules. But if you're not keen on watching very confused adolescents fret over their terribly, terribly important lives, there's precious little new programming for you to watch this fall. This fixation on Gen Y can only mean one thing: that a lot of programming executives at the broadcast networks feel the need to demonstrate they're not getting a little old for their jobs.
So, just how old is too old in Hollywood's TV circles? Well, ABC's programming gurus developed a show called "Then Came You," and it's about an older woman who falls for a younger guy who's a bellhop at the hotel where she's been shacking up since dumping her drip of a husband. She's 34 years old--and the funny part of this comedy is not supposed to be that a woman in her mid-thirties is "older."
Exactly why the AARP isn't joining the NAACP in its November boycott of the broadcast networks, I don't know, given that the networks didn't give many more lead roles to actors over 40 years of age than they did to African Americans.
This season is such a mess that three new series on the fall schedule have been yanked off before they even debuted, which is a record. The networks insist the moves are temporary. But we're still waiting for the debut of that Wes Craven drama series on Fox that was "temporarily" taken out of last fall's prime-time lineup.
UPN has already pulled one of its more talked-about new shows, the tony "Secret Agent Man," and replaced it with the low-brow action hour "The Strip." Fox nixed its racy ain't-prep-school-a-drag drama "Manchester Prep," though the network promises it'll be on in December. But production has been shut down on the series; Fox says that was done to give the writers more time to focus on stories. Yeah, right.
And, at the 11th hour, ABC execs yanked "Then Came You." No, it's not because they want to recast with an even younger actress; suits say it's because they want to put the sitcom in a kinder, gentler time slot than Thursday at 8:30 p.m. So why'd they schedule it there in the first place? I mean, if "Then Came You" can't make a go of it against that sorry excuse for a sitcom "Jesse" on NBC, what are its chances of surviving anywhere?
Rank: No. 1
Prime-Time Audience: 13 million
Real Boss: Mel Karmazin, CBS Corp. CEO
Crown Jewel: "60 Minutes"
Dirty Secret: First-place finish in number of viewers doesn't mean top ad dollars if you're No. 4 in adults ages 18-49 and 25-54.
New Sitcoms: "Ladies Man," "Work With Me," "Love & Money"
New Dramas: "Family Law," "Judging Amy," "Now and Again"
Best Shot for a Hit: Midseason hospital drama "City of Angels" from Steven Bochco
Strategy: Run counter to other networks' reckless pursuit of Gen Y, but try to lure more under-50 viewers by mixing actors in their forties with older, established stars (Tyne Daly, Swoosie Kurtz, Dixie Carter, Betty White) on new shows.
Rank: No. 2
Prime-Time Audience: 12.7 million
Real Boss: Bob Wright, NBC president and CEO
Crown Jewel: "Friends"
Dirty Secret: "ER's" numbers looked grim at the end of last season and all summer.
New Sitcoms: "The Mike O'Malley Show," "Stark Raving Mad"
New Dramas: "Law & Order: Special Victims Unit," "West Wing," "Cold Feet," "Freaks and Geeks," "Third Watch"
Best Shot for a Hit: Sophomore sitcom "Will & Grace"
Strategy: Fewer single-gal sitcoms on the schedule and the return of drama series to the NBC lineup. A last-minute Tuesday schedule shuffle shows faith in "Will & Grace," which really took off in the ratings during the summer, and the lack thereof in the new "Mike O'Malley Show."
Rank: No. 3
Prime-Time Audience: 11.8 million
Real Boss: Michael Eisner, Disney chairman and CEO
Crown Jewel: "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?"
Dirty Secret: They've got hordes of well-paid development execs and lots of expensive writer/producer deals, but what's really working on the network are cheap quiz shows based on British hits.
New Sitcoms: "Oh Grow Up," "Then Came You," "Odd Man Out"
New Dramas: "Once and Again," "Wasteland," "Snoops"
Best Shot for a Hit: Midseason return of "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?"
Strategy: Football is back to 9 p.m.-midnight after a failed 8-11 p.m. tryout last fall; Gen Y magnet Kevin Williamson gets a stab at drumming up an audience on wasteland Thursday schedule; bleak Saturday given over to padded three-hour movie block. Sunday turned over to David E. Kelley--and get summer sensation "Millionaire" back on the schedule as soon as possible.
Rank: No. 4
Prime-Time Audience: 10.6 million
Real Boss: Peter Chernin, News Corp. president and COO
Crown Jewel: "The Simpsons"
Dirty Secret: The numbers for "The X-Files" didn't look good over the summer, and new "Manchester Prep" could be this season's "Hollyweird": a high-profile show that melts down during production and never airs.
New Sitcoms: "Ally," "Action," "Malcolm in the Middle"
New Dramas: "Time of Your Life," "Get Real," "Manchester Prep," "Badland," "Harsh Realm"
Best Shot for a Hit: "Action" (it's also the net's best shot for a bomb).
Strategy: Push press's buttons with in-your-face shows like Hollywood spoof "Action" and dysfunctional-family drama "Get Real." All those aghast press reports are tremendous help in breaking those shows through new-season clutter.
Rank: No. 5
Prime-Time Audience: 4.5 million
Real Boss: Bob Daly, Warner Bros. chairman and CEO.
Crown Jewel: "Seventh Heaven"
Dirty Secret: "Felicity" and star Keri Russell failed to live up to last season's hype.
New Sitcom: "Mission Hill"
New Dramas: "Safe Harbor," "Angel," "Roswell," "Popular," "Jack & Jill"
Best Shot for a Hit: "Angel"
Strategy: Take successful chick dramas and clone like mad.
Rank: No. 6
Prime-Time Audience: 2.7 million
Real Boss: Mel Karmazin, soon to be president and COO of Viacom
Crown Jewel: "Star Trek: Voyager"
Dirty Secret: Network may not be around long if FCC doesn't give Viacom a waiver to own UPN and CBS.
New Sitcoms: "The Parkers," "Grown Ups," "Shasta McNasty"
New Drama: "The Strip"
Best Shot for a Hit: "WWF Smackdown!"
Strategy: Go after young guys with "Smackdown!" wrestling and "Shockwave" movie on Friday; target African American audience on Monday. And pray to the TV gods for an FCC waiver.