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Women come up winners in 1997 prime-time lottery

Kirstie Alley in
Kirstie Alley in "Veronica's Closet"  
January 2, 1998
Web posted at: 5:17 p.m. EST (2217 GMT)

From Correspondent Sherri Sylvester

HOLLYWOOD (CNN) -- The odds against a new show becoming a hit are staggering, and the odds that the lead player in a new hit will be female are longer still. But this season, women are winning the prime-time lottery.

A sampling: NBC's "Veronica's Closet," at No. 3 in the Nielsen ratings, has helped Kirstie Alley build on -- and break away from -- her "Cheers" roots.

"Ally McBeal," starring Calista Flockhart, has found more fans for Fox.

And "Dharma and Greg," ABC's sitcom about the unlikely pairing of a flower girl and a rising New York attorney, is the only new series this season that bests the show airing before it.

Jenna Elfman in
Jenna Elfman in "Dharma and Greg"  

"It's like my first show of it being, you know, my show, and so to have it be so well acknowledged, and my work and everybody's work, you know, it's like 'wow!'" said Jenna Elfman, who has won critical acclaim in the role of Dharma.

Veteran women's shows used their clout to tackle tough issues. With her widely anticipated "I'm gay" episode, Ellen Degeneres became TV's first openly gay lead.

"It's great that women are getting more power," Degeneres said. "It's great that women are more respected. It's great that salaries are sort of getting close now -- sort of."

Women-oriented storylines

"Murphy Brown" dealt with breast cancer with a realism requested by viewers, who sent thousands of letters to the show's creators encouraging them to bring the issue into the show's storyline.

Kirsten Johnson in
Kirsten Johnson in "Third Rock from the Sun"  

Viewers, creative consultant Diane English said, asked the show's producers to "please put something on the air that's true, but also shows that there is a humorous side. And also, if you don't keep your sense of humor through this, you're doomed."

Even motherhood, long a sappy staple of sitcoms, was given a spin parents could relate to as Helen Hunt and Paul Reiser's "Mad About You" characters themselves became first-time parents.

They didn't lack material, Hunt said.

Tea Leone in
Tea Leone in "The Naked Truth"  

"All of us in the room, and there is a room, a round table of people that put this show together, (who) either are parents or their closest friends are parents, and we all have brought in our stories," Hunt said. "Every parent I know is struggling with impossible situations every minute."

Over 40 and still sexy

Even more encouraging to actresses, whose careers often dwindle when their first wrinkles appear, some of this season's TV women were allowed to be smart and funny, over 40 and still sexy. "Murphy Brown," "Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman" and "Cybill" were prime examples.

Carsey-Werner chief Caryn Mandabach is a behind-the-scenes power on "Cybill," as well as "3rd Rock From the Sun," which gives alien equality to Kirsten Johnson.

"Sabrina the Teenage Witch"  

"I think we do great with the female characters," Mandabach said, "but the challenge is not just to do female characters, the challenge is to just describe humanity in the most delicious way."

Youth-driven shows like "Sabrina the Teenage Witch," "Buffy the Vampire Slayer," "Clueless" and "Moesha" delivered a demographic advertisers want. And the success of the female-driven "Touched by an Angel" sent executives scrambling for similar shows.

Viewers may remember the prime-time women of '97 for their variety, but network executives will remember them for their profitability.


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