NBC starts the 1986-87 season with a higher viewership than any other network. And a detailed look at fall programming, including eight new series, makes it seem the No. 1 contender again. Under the leadership of entertainment division chief Brandon Tartikoff and outgoing chairman Grant Tinker, NBC has exercised greater responsibility in programming and injected a sense of quality into the schedule in recent years and still has achieved mass-audience popularity. In many cases, the network has proved that lowest-common-denominator programming is not the only road to commercial success. This year some of its new series reflect that philosophy, still all too rare in commercial television.
Here is a rundown of the new shows.
L.A. Law is the most dynamic new series of the season. Co-created by Steven Bochco, a force behind ``Hill Street Blues,'' this show uses ``Hill Street's'' no-holds-barred style to dramatize the workings of a Los Angeles law firm. The interplay between the individuals' sense of integrity, morality, and loyalty and the frequent lack of these qualities is the focus. A wide range of characters in overlapping stories keeps viewers on their toes. There is much gritty action, some of it in keeping with TV's increasing tastelessness. But skill and sensitivity are apparent in the writing.
Our House is a show that could force ``60 Minutes'' and ``The Sunday Disney Movie'' to look to their laurels. This little heartwarmer of a series may be a sleeper. It's familiar stuff: A lonely grandpa decides to invite his widowed daughter-in-law and her three children to live with him. Though warned that ``If it isn't on a cassette, modern kids don't relate,'' he is determined to give them discipline and values. And he is willing to fight for the right of his teen-age granddaughter to become an astronaut, despite sexist pressures. Wilford Brimley is just right as the outspoken granddad. He manages to make the series a charming, if slightly saccharine, Sunday night love-feast for the whole family.
1986 has made it to the weekly schedule after some occasional specials. This no-kidding-around newsmagazine plans to leave the disco-beat stories to CBS's ``West 57th'' and concentrate on solid hard-news pieces, for the most part. The show will feature co-hosts Connie Chung and Roger Mudd. Arrangements are reportedly in the works to add Maria Shriver Schwartzenegger to the staff as special correspondent. Word is that Lawrence K. Grossman, president of NBC's news division, plans to stay with the show until it catches on, just as CBS rode it out with ``60 Minutes'' for many years.
Matlock stars Andy Griffith as the charming Atlanta lawyer, Ben Matlock, the main character in a special last March called ``Diary of a Perfect Murder.'' Matlock is a Harvard-educated country lawyer. Producer Fred Silverman, who has had lots of experience choosing new series as chief programmer at all three networks in the past, has been fiddling with the premi`ere up until the last moment. So it was not available for screening at press time. But how wrong can it go with veteran Andy Griffith in the lead?
Crime Story is a fast-moving, fast-talking, stylish crime serial about Chicago hoods in the 1960s. It's been getting a lot of attention because its executive producer is Michael Mann, who gave NBC ``Miami Vice.'' Mr. Mann insists that the series will not be as turbulent as its pilot, which I found to be one of the most savage films ever prepared for TV viewing, with its slick, sickening violence. Mann maintains there's no blood on camera. But bloodless violence can be just as repulsive as the other variety. The pilot tends to strive for a measure of chicness; at one point, for instance, the hero, when viewing a dead body says, completely out of character: ``It looks like a Jackson Pollock.'' ``Crime Story'' is full of hateful people, and it's often difficult to tell the difference between the heroes and villains.
Amen brings TV's Mr. Jefferson (Sherman Hemsley) back in a new incarnation, this time as a cantankerous Philadelphia deacon constantly sparring with a new minister (Clifton Davis). Believe it or not, rock-and-roll's Little Richard plays the choirmaster. Most of the gags are based on familiar ``thank you, Lord'' stereotypical black humor, but there's the added bite of the deacon's negativism and dubious ethics. Aside from its questionable look at one segment of black middle-class society, the main asset of this thin, new series is executive producer Ed Weinberg, whose talents helped craft ``Maude'' and ``The Cosby Show.'' Maybe he can pull this one together, too.
Easy Street could have been called ``Three's a Weird Crowd.'' An ex-showgirl (Loni Anderson) invites her uncle and his black sidekick to leave their room in a retirement home and share her mansion in Beverly Hills. Also living in the house are her late husband's very proper sister and brother-in-law. They are shocked by the uncle's crudity. It's outrageous, offbeat comedy in which the situation is often funnier than the lines.
ALF looks like a Saturday morning children's show that got lost and wandered into prime time. ALF (short for ``Alien Life Form'') is a Muppetlike extraterrestrial from the planet Melmac, who looks like a cross between a kangaroo and an aardvark. His space ship crashes into the roof of a typical American home. You can tell it's typical because Dad says to the kids: ``If we don't respect the rules, how can we respect each other? Have we learned nothing from watching `The Cosby Show'?'' Obviously the producers haven't found the ``The Cosby Show'' very enlightening, because ``ALF'' is childish, obvious, simplistic. On Saturday morning, it might have been more appealing than cartoon fare among the moppets, who would be likely to beg mom and dad for an ALF doll. But on Monday nights, it will be up against one of the best-written shows on TV, ``Kate And Allie'' on CBS. Watch that instead.
If the new season sounds a lot like the previous decade of seasons on the commercial networks, that's because it is: lots of mindless entertainment, very little of substance. If you want more solid viewing mixed in with your entertainment, the PBS season starts next month. Show times
Here is a schedule for the series previewed in the accompanying article:
ALF, Mondays, 8-8:30 p.m., starting Sept. 22.
Amen, Saturdays, 9:30-10 p.m., starting Sept. 27.
Crime Story, Tuesdays, 9-10 p.m., previews Sept. 18, 19, and 26, then moves to regular time Sept. 30.
Easy Street, Sundays, 8-8:30 p.m., previews Sept. 20, 9:30-10 p.m. and then moves to regular time Sept. 28.
L.A. Law, Fridays, 10-11 p.m., previewed Sept. 15, previews again Sept. 27, and then moves to regular time Oct. 3.
Matlock, Tuesdays, 8-9 p.m., starting Sept. 23.
1986, Tuesdays, 10-11 p.m., starting Sept. 30.
Our House, Sundays, 7-8 p.m., previewed Sept. 11 and moved to regular time last Sunday.