Not Much To Excite Advertisers (Or Viewers) in Fall TV Lineup

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ANOTHER cautious, colorless lineup. Another season of sameness and derivative ideas. In other words, a new network-TV fall schedule is looming, and if you haven't heard a resounding echo in the media and elsewhere, it may be because there's not much to echo.

The new lineup unveiled recently by ABC, CBS, NBC, and Fox is underwhelming, creatively and commercially. Even though a fairly heavy dollop of drama suggests something beyond sitcom fluff, there seem to be few conceptual breakthroughs. The networks' own series descriptions and the reaction of ad agencies and other professionals reinforces the impression.

If this impending dullness sounds sadly familiar, it's no doubt because recent seasons have been distinctly nonadventurous. One reason is that painful memories can be long-lasting among network programmers, and the lessons of 1990-91 probably have not been lost on them. Look what happened to that artistically bold season: New ideas and formats were tried but found wanting in terms of ratings. The result was a season of declining viewership and no true hits.

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And the next fall - 1991 - the backlash was boring to behold. Only 12 of the 32 new shows had survived. Among the casualties were the singing police officers on ``Cop Rock,'' the soul-searching types on ``Twin Peaks,'' and the introspective young professionals on ``thirtysomething.'' The new emphasis during the rather lackluster 1991-92 TV year was on standard formats that leaned on established names like James Garner and Carol Burnett.

That season produced one true hit - ABC's ``Home Improvement'' (still with us in this fall's lineup). And the networks' total share of viewers was up. It was enough to ignite a spark or two of enterprise among programmers of the next year's slate: 1992-93. NBC and ABC reached for younger viewers - mainly Fox territory up to then - with series like ABC's ``The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles.'' Older-generation winners like ``Golden Girls'' were dumped - foolishly, as it turned out.

Yet, by last fall, the reach for younger audiences had been largely abandoned, since many of the youth shows had failed to attract big ratings. Money troubles had forced networks to produce more shows in-house, resulting in fewer good ideas from outside producers. And attacks on offensive content from activist groups had reinforced the network's native conservatism, although it didn't stop ABC from launching ``NYPD Blue,'' an unusually explicit though critically well-received police drama (still in the new ABC schedule this fall).

But in general it was a lineup carefully engineered not to rock the boat - especially the financial one - and apparently it didn't. Amid constant press coverage about satellites, the media superhighway, and 500 or more viewing channels, the three major networks and Fox retained their share of viewers, according to the New York advertising agency Saatchi & Saatchi: Some three-quarters of all people watching prime time were tuned to the four networks.

And it appears the youth angle worked for ABC last season: Four of its shows succeeded with young viewers. CBS, on the other hand, sustained damage from Fox on two fronts: Fox ran off with eight CBS-affiliated stations - a key component of network success; and Fox captured the NFL football games - a stunning loss for CBS, which had been airing them for 30 years. Yet CBS did air the most widely viewed Winter Olympics in TV history.

NBC, though it ran third among the networks last year, made out handsomely with its powerful Thursday-night comedy block of ``Mad About You,'' ``Wings,'' ``Seinfeld,'' and ``Frasier.'' Well before the network announced its new schedule, it was trumpeting the reappearance of that lineup this fall. Small wonder. The new Thursday night offers ``Mad About You,'' ``Friends,'' and ``Seinfeld,'' but ``Frasier'' moves to Tuesday night opposite ABC's powerful ``Roseanne.''

The rest of the new schedule is intermittently interesting but has been consigned to a gloomy commercial future by some ad-agency analysts. Much of ABC's lineup remains intact, a sign of strength. In a bid for the younger viewers that sponsors prize, ABC is offering at least one format that lets a member of Generation X struggle to define herself: ``My So-Called Life,'' a drama by the producers of ``thirtysomething.''

CBS is assertively boasting its new season in the face of its losses to Fox and some predictions that ABC could overtake it this season as No. 1 in the ratings. CBS has been especially impassioned in plugging Thursday night's ``Chicago Hope,'' by David Kelley, creator of ``Picket Fences'' (retained in the new CBS schedule). CBS Entertainment president Peter Tortorici is putting many of his promotional chips on this production, set in a Chicago hospital, calling it ``the best new show of the season on any network.'' Last season's low-rated ``Tom'' and the Burt Reynolds vehicle, ``Evening Shade,'' will be dropped.

As for NBC, it is pinning another hope to its Thursday-night lineup: a sitcom called ``Madman of the People,'' starring Dabney Coleman as a reporter (cantankerous, of course) who works for his daughter. That series has already been given high marks for potential ratings in some quarters. But it will have to perform very strongly to prove it doesn't owe much of its viewership to the good fortune of following ``Seinfeld'' on Thursday night.

Last season Fox tried to ``broaden its niche,'' in the words of Saatchi & Saatchi. This season, in addition to its aggressive moves in grabbing CBS affiliates and NFL football, it will again take aim at younger viewers. Fox hopes to recoup some of them with new shows like ``Party of Five,'' a drama about five siblings trying to make a life after their parents are killed in a car crash; and ``Wild Oats,'' a comedy series based on the hectic lives of Generation Xers.

Knowledgeable observers have gone on record as saying this season - like 1990-91 - could be hitless. Yet, as they say in politics, there's only one poll that really counts. For the TV networks, it begins this fall.

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