the battle of the time slot

Sep 9, 2002  •  Post A Comment

The new fall season offers up some intriguing time-slot battles for picky viewers. As usual, the lead-in shows-consider them the pre-fight hype-may have more to do with the outcome than the relative merits of any of these series. But you never know when that haymaker is going to land and all of a sudden we’ve got a new ratings champ.
So here’s a breakdown, the tale of the tape, for what to expect nightly this fall:
CBS’s “CSI: Miami” vs. NBC’s “Crossing Jordan.” Usual time slot winner among adults 18 to 49 “Jordan’s” going to get crossed, all right. Make it a right cross. And if there’s any justice-and taste-toss in an upper cut. “Crossing Jordan,” last season’s most improbable ratings gainer (come on-those re-enactments-please!) will face a proven commodity in “CSI,” so forget talk of the unknown quality working against David Caruso and friends. Jill Hennessy’s tough-chick pose doesn’t look so daunting compared with Kim Delaney. Viewers will probably decide early to move to Miami.
ABC’s “Life With Bonnie” vs. NBC’s “Frasier.” Oh, Frasier and Niles may be old-and allergic to athletic activity-but this is about as close to a knockout as there is. Yes, it’s true that “Frasier” has seen better days. And yes, it’s true that Bonnie Hunt is very funny. But she can’t keep a show on the air (anyone remember “The Building”?) and despite some very fine qualities in this one, it doesn’t look to be the show that wins her love from a mass audience. When in doubt, viewers opt for the familiar. And they will again, no matter how tired it may be. Besides, don’t rule out the cantankerous Crane brothers finding a second comedic wind. It happened to “Friends.”
Let’s get ready to rumble. Wednesdays are shaping up to be ugly. The race card has already been played here. With ABC’s “My Wife and Kids” going against Fox’s “Bernie Mac,” the only two successful wide appeal black sitcoms on TV are facing off against each other. “Bernie Mac” had a slight ratings edge among adults 18 to 49 last year, but as network honchos at ABC and Fox have said, the audiences are different and there’s very little overlap. Fine. Go with quality here-“Bernie Mac” should thoroughly pound the time-slot incumbent, mostly because “My Wife and Kids” isn’t nearly as funny. Perhaps the non-marquee bout-ABC’s “The George Lopez Show” vs. Fox’s newcomer “Cedric The Entertainer”-will be a closer call. But if Mac wins, so does Cedric, as he should. Pound for pound, and there’s a lot of them on both Cedric and Lopez, the former is funnier, even if a variety show is dicier than a cookie-cutter sitcom. Plus, you shouldn’t mess with half of the Kings of Comedy. Everybody on the street knows that.
NBC’s “ER” vs. CBS’s “Without a Trace” may be the most watched battle of the fall. There’s a near consensus among critics and astute viewers that “ER” is long past its sell-by date, creatively. But it still is the No. 1-rated drama in the 18 to 49 demo. Whether out of habit or loyalty, either will be hard for “Without a Trace” to match. This is kind of like plunking down $50 for one of those pay-per-view bouts because you’re absolutely convinced that the old lion is going to get his clock cleaned, only to find the Next Big Thing is really some stiff. Ah, but if you don’t watch, you won’t see the upset everyone’s been waiting for. Look for “ER” to dominate early, but don’t rule out a stunning comeback if “Trace,” a fine procedural drama, lives up to its promise. That may seem bold, but “ER,” the longtime heavyweight champion, is overdue to hit the canvas.
Friday provides a World Wrestling Entertainment-worthy rumble of three newcomers: ABC’s comedy “That Was Then” vs. two dramas in CBS’s “Hack” and Fox’s “John Doe.” No question, “John Doe” is the best show of the three. If given a chance, the mysterious ways and uniqueness of “Doe” will hook viewers. But it has an unproven rookie lead-in (Joss Whedon’s “Firefly”) compared with established veterans opening doors for the two others, making this race almost impossible to call. Plus it’s Friday night-a wild card. Of course, “Dateline” will probably pummel them all, leaving someone to opt for demographic bragging rights-a sad, hollow victory.
Apparently Saturday night is not a night for fights on the broadcast networks. Or for watching anything at all.
NBC’s “Boomtown” vs. ABC’s “The Practice.” Let’s face it, while “The Practice” consistently won its time period in the 18 to 49 demo last year, the show has become a joke. And “Boomtown,” which is just about the only new fall show to generate any buzz, is a serious contender. It has an excellent cast and an intriguing premise (a crime told from various perspectives and by various personalities). In the other corner, well, you can only go with that killer nun thing once. Or twice, max. Even though David E. Kelley says “The Practice” will lose some of its, um, stupidity, you’d have to be punch-drunk to stick with this show. Bet on “Boomtown” for a much-deserved TKO victory.#
Tim Goodman is the TV critic for the San Francisco Chronicle.