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Networks ready for dogfight on TV airwaves this fall

Web posted on: Tuesday, September 08, 1998 4:36:58 PM

LOS ANGELES (CNN) -- It's the season of change for television: No "Seinfeld," more competition, and plenty of new shows.

But will the new fall season of TV live up to the hype? Some critics don't think so.

'It's all about change'

The big news this fall is the competition for viewership. Former "Big Three" networks NBC, CBS, and ABC are battling to retain viewers who are remote-wandering to the newer Fox, UPN and WB networks, and other channels on the cable landscape.

"I think if you're not comfortable with change, you're in the wrong business," says Warren Littlefield, president of NBC. "It's all about change."

The networks plan to flood screens with a wide array of new shows: nearly two dozen new sitcoms, and 17 new dramas.

But critics say they are disappointed with the new fall offerings.

"Going into the fall season, there's probably as little buzz about the new shows as I can remember in 15 years of covering this business," says J. Max Robins, senior editor for "TV Guide."




"Will & Grace"

"Wind On Water"

Must-see TV

Still, what critics enjoy and what audiences watch have often strayed in different directions.

So what will we see this fall on TV?

Starting with last year's ratings leader, NBC hopes to continue dominating the ratings, despite the loss of "Seinfeld" on Thursday nights. "Frasier" will take over the coveted Thursday-night-at-9 slot.

"This has given us a tremendous boost, and it's sort of a really exciting thing to come back to," says actress Jane Leeves, who plays Frasier's father's physical therapist on the Emmy-winning sitcom. "You know, it's not just we're doing 'Frasier' on Tuesday. We're getting the Thursday time slot."

Meanwhile, NBC's "NewsRadio" will continue without Phil Hartman, who was killed this summer. Jon Lovitz joins the cast.

And there's plenty of talk about a new NBC sitcom called "Will & Grace," starring Eric McCormack and Deborah Messing. The plot revolves around a gay man and his female best friend and roommate. McCormack says he ignores the "controversial" label attached to the show.

"I think there's a controversy being invented for the sake of controversy," says McCormack. "I think when people see the first few episodes, they'll realize it's not that big a deal."

NBC is also pulling out new dramas, including "Wind On Water," starring Bo Derek, who is happy to stray from her sex symbol roots.

"We're family-hour television," she says. "I love that."


"The Secret Lives of Men"

"Sports Night"

"Fantasy Island"

"NYPD Blue"


Changes at ABC

ABC is hoping to launch a strong attack against rival networks with a spiced-up menu.

On the sitcom front, the network will offer "The Secret Lives of Men," as well as "Sports Night" by Ron Howard's Imagine Entertainment.

"Spin City" promises more edge this season.

"There are places not only with adult themes or a range of things like that -- I mean, put that aside for a second -- but just things where you go, 'Can you do that on TV?'" says "Spin City" star Michael J. Fox. "And we're going to go, 'Yeah, you can.'"

For dramas, ABC is marching out an old favorite. "Fantasy Island" will be shown on Saturdays, but gracious host Ricardo Montablan, who starred as Mr. Rourke in the original version, has been replaced by Malcolm McDowell.

"It's not a sentimentalized version of it," says McDowell. "It'll be sort of rather edgy and a darker verion, maybe darker fantasies."

"NYPD Blue" has changed as well. Jimmy Smits is gone, replaced by Rick Schroder, who found fame as a child actor in the early-80s series "Silver Spoons" but has struggled to make a name for himself as an adult actor.

"For the people that may not think I'm capable of it, I'd like to see their reaction to me in six months," a confident Schroder says.

And then there's ABC's newest drama "Cupid," starring Jeremy Piven as an institutionalized patient who claims he's everyone's favorite matchmaker.


"Maggie Winters"
"The King of Queens"
"L.A. Doctors"

CBS sees future

CBS has big plans for Faith Ford. The former costar of "Murphy Brown" is now starring in her own show, "Maggie Winters," about a woman who returns to her small town roots when her big city dreams don't go as planned.

Another new CBS sitcom: "The King of Queens," starring Kevin James as a man who has a suburban dream life turned upside down by family members who move in.

Meanwhile, CBS brings new life to the drama-comedy front with "Buddy Faro." The show capitalizes on the retro-swing craze, depicting a swingin' 1960s-era detective stuck in the 1990s.

The eye network is hoping for a live one in the new drama "L.A. Doctors." Unlike "ER" and "Chicago Hope," most of the action will take place outside the operating room; the medical stories act as springboards to the personal lives of the show's characters.


"Ally McBeal"

"That '70s Show"


Fox feeling fine

Fox is hoping for another strong year of original programming. The once-upstart network is now considered a heavy hitter with shows like "The X-Files" and "Ally McBeal."

"Every single series on our network in the last 11 years that has been successful dared to be different, dared to be unusual, unlike anything else on network television," says Peter Roth, president of the Fox Network. "From 'Married with Children' to 'The Simpsons' to 'In Living Color,' 'The X-Files, 'Ally McBeal,' 'King of the Hill,' each of these shows dared to be different and alternative."

The network hopes its new shows will catch on as well. Two new sitcoms target the 20-something crowd.

"That '70s Show" offers comedy through nostalgia. And "Holding the Baby" reveals a different side to young parenthood.

Fox will continue its tradition of edgy dramas with the original "Brimstone," the story of a man sent back from hell to hunt down demons who have somehow escaped.



"Mercy Point"

"South Park"

"From the Earth to the Moon"

UPN, WB and cable

And then, there's the little networks that could. UPN and WB are hoping to build on their modest success by offering shows that appeal to a younger audience.

WB, which brought us the breakthrough suprises "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" and "Dawson's Creek," is banking this year on the highly anticipated drama "Felicity." The coming-of-age story depicts a young woman in her first year at college.

UPN, meanwhile, is countering with "Mercy Point," a sort of "ER"-meets-"Star Trek," and "Seven Days," a time-traveling adventure.

Cable stations can no longer be counted out, either.

From Comedy Central's breakout hit "South Park" to HBO's "From the Earth to the Moon," which was nominated for an astronomical 17 Emmys, cable is coming on strong, which makes for more competition.

"This is really the season we're going to see the knock-down, drag-out fight between cable and between the networks," predicts Mary Murphy, senior writer for TV Guide.

Part of the fight is boiling down to behind-the-scenes recruitment. In past years, the networks spent their money on big-name stars to launch new comedies, while this year they're going behind the scenes and hiring producers with proven track records.

For example, the creators of "3rd Rock From the Sun" are behind "That '70s Show," which is already getting good ratings. NBC's new "Jesse" is from the makers of "Friends." "Will & Grace" is directed by the former director of "Cheers." And the new Nathan Lane vehicle "Encore! Encore!" is from the folks who brought us "Frasier."

Yet TV Guide's Robins says viewership is spread thin, and that's bad news for the broadcast networks.

"The broadcast networks are in a real jam. Their expenses, their programming expenses keep climbing," Robins says. "At the same time, their audience keeps declining, and really it puts them in a position where it's very hard, given that economic model, to make money."

But competition is sure to mean more -- and perhaps better -- shows for viewers in the years to come.

Correspondents Jim Moret, Ron Tank, Sherri Sylvester and Paul Vercammen contributed to this report.

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