Rating the fall lineup
CBS: ``We've Got the Touch.'' NBC: ``Let's All Be There.''
ABC: ``You'll Love It.''
Those are the network slogans for the fall 1985 season . . . on the whole just about as inspired as the schedules themselves.
The annual spring TV-network war has started, and, based upon my survey of the new schedules, the most obvious pattern appears to be that black America is being drafted to fight some of the major battles.
Twenty-two new series for the fall TV season were announced recently by the three commercial networks. That compares with 20 new series announced at this time in 1984. Only five of last year's 20 new shows remain on the schedule for next season. The major success: NBC's ``Cosby Show,'' which finished the official season as the No. 1 sitcom.
Now, Bill Cosby is black, and the show features a bevy of attractive black actors . . . but it is not a ``black'' show. It is a show about an upper-middle-class family that just happens to be black. Color them white and it would be just as warm, loving, funny . . . and skillfully written.
But the networks don't seem to realize this as they scurry around for new ``black'' black shows so they can join the trend. As the schedules stand right now -- and there may be many changes before September rolls around -- 26 regular shows will have major black characters, with seven of the new shows revolving around black leads. In the midst of all of this rush to black, however, CBS is dropping one of its longtime favorite black shows, ``The Jeffersons,'' and NBC dropped Gary Coleman's ``Diff'rent Strokes,'' which was immediately picked up by ABC. So much for black trends.
While, in the main, a look at the schedules reveals very little that is new or innovative, anybody desperate for trends can find a couple of mini-trends. Anthology shows seem to be in for a try again -- there are NBC's ``Alfred Hitchcock'' and ``Amazing Stories,'' CBS's ``Twilight Zone'' and ``George Burns' Comedy Week.'' Comedy, too, is making a comeback, with 24 comedy shows on the three prime-time schedules.
It's too early to call it even a mini-trend, but one of the most important developments that I have been able to discern is some boldness in bucking the dictates of simple-minded demographics. It probably stems from the enlightened attitude to be found at NBC under the guidance of Grant Tinker and Brandon Tartikoff. They seem to recognize the fact that American audiences are willing to ``cross over'' and watch a good-quality show even if the specific demographics are not apparently in tune with most of the audience. There certainly aren't enough Yuppies to support any show alone.
The wide-ranging success of ``The Cosby Show'' may be opening doors for other ``minority'' shows, not because it is black and blacks will surely watch it, but because (despite the fact that its seemingly natural audience would make it a minority show) it is simply so good that it crosses all the supposed demographic lines and everybody from every walk of life and in every age group finds it refreshingly good.
I would say that probably accounts in part for the fact that NBC has placed ``The Golden Girls'' on the schedule on Sunday nights. The show concerns three aging widows who share a house in Miami. Advertising agency experts would probably argue that such a show will attract only older citizens, not normally considered a go-go mass audience. But NBC figures that the combination of Bea Arthur, Betty White, and Rue McClanahan is capable of pulling the whole range of demographics . . . if the show has quality. I have seen the pilot, and I'd like to report that it certainly looks like a winner.
Of the 22 new series, ABC has 10, CBS 6, and NBC 6. ABC, which finished last season in third position, after CBS and NBC, has recognized the need for major strengthening. But a look at what is being offered makes it clear that the strength is only in the number of new shows. CBS, with six new arrivals, looks to be in fairly good shape. Many industry observers, myself included, believe the ABC, with 10 new shows, is in trouble with what appears to be the least exciting new schedule being offered. But, I predict I predict a good year for NBC, maybe even a leap into top spot after more than a decade out of it. NBC The ``Let's All Be There'' network is offering viewers four new dramas and two new comedies:
Hell Town (Wednesdays, 9-10 p.m.) stars Robert Blake as a tough priest in clerical collar, collaring bad guys in East Los Angeles. Last seen in the violent ``Baretta'' series, Blake says with refreshing candor: ``With God's blessing, this one will last awhile. I promise I won't hurt anybody with it; I intend to be proud of it.''
Misfits of Science (Fridays, 9-10 p.m.) is forked-tongue-in-cheek horror-and-science-fiction drama, aimed at teens and preteens. Its gimmick: turning nature's misfits into superheroes. Or, NBC hopes, superstars. I've seen some of it and, well, you gotta be a kid. . . .
The Golden Girls (Saturdays, 9-9:30 p.m.). Everybody's favorite pilot stars Bea Arthur, Betty White, and Rue McClanahan as aging widows who share a house in Miami with a gay cook. It could be what the industry calls a ``breakout'' comedy. It is produced by the team responsible for ``Soap,'' and I found the pilot hilariously funny.
227 (Saturdays, 9:30-10 p.m.) stars Marla Gibbs of the canceled ``Jeffersons.'' While it is mostly black, it concerns the tenants in an urban apartment building, with whom everybody can identify. Universality means they won't call it a tenement in a ghetto.
Amazing Stories (Sundays 8:30-9 p.m.). Moviemaker Stephen Spielberg is given a weekly spot to entice top directors into making short fantasies.
Alfred Hitchcock (Sundays, 8:30-9 p.m.). Updated versions of the chilling stories, mainly from the old Hitchcock show. A special pilot version aired a few weeks ago and proved itself in the ratings. CBS The ``We've Got the Touch'' network is entering six new series in the race for the top, standing pat with most of last year's schedule:
Hometown (Tuesdays, 8-9 p.m.) is a ``Big Chill''-type series about 1960s activist college chums trying to integrate themselves into the 1980s establishment. There's a little bit of the ``Family Ties'' influence here as well.
Stir Crazy (Wednesdays, 8-9 p.m.), a series based on the hit movie of the same title, stars Larry Riley as the black murderer who escapes with his white buddy to find the real killer. Riley is not Richard Pryor . . . but then, who is?
Charlie and Company (Wednesdays, 9-9:30 p.m.) is more black Yuppie stuff -- Flip Wilson and Gladys Knight play a couple, he a civil servant and she a teacher, trying to maintain middle-class family values on Chicago's South Side.
George Burns' Comedy Week (Wednesdays, 9:30-10 p.m.). Comedy anthology show with old-timer Burns holding the open door for the best contemporary comedy each week.
The Equalizer (Wednesdays, 10-11 p.m.). Another private-eye caper show. This one features Edward Woodward (seen in ``Breaker Morant'') as a one-man security agency operating out of, where else, his swank Manhattan penthouse. He takes only last-chance clients who have no legitimate agency to go to. Steven Williams, another black actor, plays a major role as a police officer. If the show sounds familiar, that's because it is familiar.
The Twilight Zone (Fridays, 8-9 p.m.). This one is really familiar. Rod Serling's old omnibus offbeat terror show returning after a 21-year hiatus (although it's been syndicated ever since it went off). Ray Bradbury is one of the writers and William Friedkin one of the directors, so CBS is obviously searching for top talent. ABC The ``You'll Love It'' channel is hoping you'll love the hodgepodge of new shows enough to pull ABC out of the lower depths of third place:
MacGuyver (Sundays, 8-9 p.m.). Would you believe still another private-eye trouble-shooter? This one, played by Richard Dean Anderson, was called by an ABC executive ``a thinking man's man.'' The most innovative thing about the series is the fact that one of the executive producers is Henry Winkler. I wouldn't bet on ``happy days'' with this one, Fonz.
He's the Mayor (Tuesdays, 8:30-9 p.m.). With ``Benson'' doing so well in politics, ABC is going for another black politico. Kevin Hooks runs for mayor as a lark . . . and wins. But his dad, the city's chief maintenance man, keeps him from getting a big head . . . and the series from becoming too Yuppie.
Growing Pains (Tuesdays, 9:30-10 p.m.) sounds like ``The Cosby Show'' colored white. Alan Thicke, who floundered in his own late-night show opposite Johnny Carson last year, is now trying to make it as a psychiatrist dad who practices out of his family home. I hear that Cosby's not worrying.
The Insiders (Wednesdays, 8-9 p.m.). This one's a twofer, about two maverick investigative reporters, one white and one black, of course. It's got a cool ``Miami Vice'' look . . . and sound.
Lady Blue (Thursdays, 8-9 p.m.). This combination of ``Wonder Woman,'' ``Hill Street Blues,'' and ``Dirty Harry'' is already being called ``Dirty Harriet.'' The pilot did well last month, so it is scheduled for a couple of months until Dynasty II: The Colbys of California, a ``Dynasty'' spinoff, is ready to slither into the lineup.
Mister Sunshine (Fridays, 9:30-10 p.m.) stars what an ABC programming executive called ``an acerbic, opinionated college professor,'' played by Paul Stark. He sounded too much like Professor Kingsfield, so ABC made him sightless so viewers could tell the difference.
Family Honor (Fridays, 10:11 p.m.). This one takes the traditional family show, adds a few murders and revenge killings, and sets it loose on the streets of New York. If you thought ``The Godfather'' from the 1970s glamorized the Mafia, this '80s version seems likely to humanize and soften the evil in gangsterism even more. According to ABC, it's a fine little show about family traditions. ``They live, love . . . and die . . . by their code of family tradition.'' I'll take a family tradition like Mother's Day, please.
Hollywood Beat (Saturdays, 8-9 p.m.). Call it ``Hollywood Vice,'' as this one makes still another stab at the ``Miami Vice'' style, substituting jeans and T-shirts for slick GQ fashions.
J. G. Culver (Saturdays, 9-10 p.m.). Well, they've broken up a happy marriage -- Mr. Hart (Robert Wagner) returns sans Stephanie Powers as an insurance investigator with two loving daughters. But where's the wife? In this new series he's got his old Oxford roommate, Edward (John Standing), to stand in on the worldwide adventures. OK, so you've seen it all before.
The truth is you've seen most of the new shows on all three networks before, with only slight variations. You'll be missing some of your old favorites, of course -- gone from the schedule are such shows as ``The Jeffersons'' (CBS), Double Trouble'' (NBC), and ``Three's a Crowd'' (ABC).
Which network will end up as King of the Airwaves next season?
CBS, this season's No. 1, seems to have a tough contender on its hands in NBC, which has been edging up rapidly and has turned in the best new schedule . . . at least on paper. ABC, with all those new shows, many of which look like clinkers, would seem to be out of the race for supremacy in the coming season.
As one NBC executive said the other day, the big question is: ``Can NBC take CBS before Ted Turner does?''