New shows struggle to make the grade

Mar 25, 2002  •  Post A Comment

A few weeks out of the February sweeps and NBC’s Olympics juggernaut, scant few midseason series are getting strong initial sampling-although Fox could be the first to solidly plant some stakes.
Judging from good early reviews and its ratings performance, the debut of “Andy Richter Controls the Universe” on March 19 gave Fox a much-needed 8:30 p.m.-to-9 p.m. (ET) Tuesday set piece out of “That ’70s Show.”
The initially strong ratings returns for “Andy,” which held even with its lead-in and improved the time slot 11 percent over modestly received “Undeclared,” were in line with Fox’s previous successful midseason launches of sitcom hits “Malcolm in the Middle,” “Titus” and “King of the Hill.”
“Typically, Fox has been slow to start the fall, and the World Series going into November did not help. But Fox always has one or two [midseason] shows that hit, so they have the best Band-Aids in the business,” said Stacey Lynn Koerner, senior vice president and director of media research for Initiative Media North America.
While it is only one episode into “Andy Richter’s” run, Ms. Koerner and other ad agency executives are encouraged that Fox has again seemingly come up with a midseason sitcom in keeping with its “edgy” image. Fox’s biggest test could come this Wednesday with the debut of “Greg the Bunny.” And just as “Andy Richter” benefited from a strong lead-in comedy, Ms. Koerner thinks “Greg the Bunny,” which received a full order of 13 episodes, could “flow perfectly” out of Fox’s 9 p.m.-to-9:30 p.m. hit freshman comedy “Bernie Mac.”
Preston Beckman, executive VP of program planning and scheduling, said he thinks “Greg the Bunny”-described by Fox insiders as “Sesame Street” meets “The Larry Sanders Show”-is the “ideal” 9:30 p.m. adult-oriented comedy to complement “Bernie Mac’s” tough-love family show.
“Midseason is all about building new shows on the backs of established hits, which is something we think `Andy Richter’ has done with `That ’70s Show’ and what `Greg the Bunny’ will do coming out of `Bernie Mac,”’ Mr. Beckman said. “With `Greg’ and `Andy,’ we also have the advantage of having many episodes in the can to schedule them in the position to keep building sampling into May sweeps.” Fox has had rougher going on the drama side. In the first two weeks of Fox’s launch of the U.K.-based drama “American Embassy” in the 9 p.m.-to-10 p.m. Monday time slot, it is off 25 percent from its “Boston Public” lead-in among adults 18 to 49.
Mr. Beckman said Fox also has a lot banking on the return of “That ’80s Show” to the 8 p.m.-to-8:30 p.m. Wednesday slot, where it started strong on Jan. 23, then floundered a bit against the teeth of NBC’s 2002 Winter Olympics.
It was the mammoth promotional pull of the Olympics, too, that helped fuel NBC’s big 8:30 p.m. Tuesday (Feb. 26) start of “Watching Ellie,” which broke out at a 7.1 rating in adults 18 to 49 and has dropped 49 percent during its subsequent three airings to a 3.6 rating on March 19.
“I would be lying if I said we were happy with the current trend, but there have been a lot of positives in that `Ellie’ has improved on its time period and its lead-in [repeats of `Frasier’],” said Mitch Metcalf, NBC’s senior vice president of programming and scheduling.
Apparently altering course, Mr. Metcalf said NBC is now planning to air the final two episodes of “Ellie” on April 2, to be bookended by original episodes of “Frasier” at 8 p.m. and 9 p.m. With 13 episodes produced of “Ellie,” Peacock execs are now hinting that the remaining six original episodes will be held for the 2002-03 season, since star Julia Louis-Dreyfus has expressed interest in producing no more than 15 episodes per season. Other sources say the show is being indefinitely put on the shelf.
In the meantime, NBC’s other highly touted new series, “Leap of Faith,” is retaining about 78 percent of its “Friends” lead-in among adults 18 to 49-about 5 percent better than what its canceled 8:30 p.m. predecessor “Inside Schwartz” did earlier this season.
“Compare this to the 74 percent that `Becker’ retains out of `Everybody Loves Raymond,’ and [“Leap of Faith”] is right in that league. And `Becker’ does not get the kind of media attention that `Leap of Faith’ gets, nor the kind of competition it faces against `Survivor’ currently,” Mr. Metcalf said.
CBS’s midseason entry “Baby Bob” debuted March 18 to initially strong ratings in adults 18 to 49 (5.2/13) in the 8:30 p.m.-to-9 p.m. Monday slot. Although it was not received well by critics, if wisecracking “Baby Bob” holds up in the ratings, it could leave CBS in the difficult position of deciding whether to keep on Monday night or use it as part of new Wednesday or Friday comedy blocks next fall.
ABC is finding it could be most severely pressed to establish a midseason hit, with four new shows launching this week. So far, “The Wayne Brady Show” has proved to be another limp offering for a network desperate for any kind strong 8 p.m. or 8:30 p.m. set piece outside of “My Wife and Kids.”