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What, Me Worried?

More new shows mean more cancellations.

by Tom Shales

t’s time to predict which of the new fall TV shows will be hits. That’s especially easy this year because there aren’t supposed to be any.

Not all the programs are ready to be reviewed yet, but a quick overview and a casual reading of tribal chantings from within the TV and advertising industries suggests we won’t have any new Seinfelds or ERs on our hands. In fact, maybe not even a new Dharma and Greg, which was ABC’s sole new hit last season and which seems to be fading already.

Keri Russel stars in the WB’s Felicity. Porter

One show generating a happy buzz isn’t on any of the three major networks or on Fox. It’s on WB, the upstart gnatwork from Warner Bros. The series, Felicity, is aimed at a teenage audience, but Keri Russell, the young actress in the title role, is such a charmer that adults may watch, too. To say that Felicity is felicitous is putting it mildly.

But even if the show is a hit for the WB, that won’t be much of a positive change for the beleaguered networks as a group. That’s because the WB has a smaller number of stations and smaller potential reach than ABC, CBS, or NBC. A show that’s a hit on the WB, like Dawson’s Creek, which premiered midseason, wouldn’t necessarily remain a hit if moved to the bigger arena.

The big arena, though, isn’t as big as it used to be. Zenith Media Service, an ad agency that charts TV’s ups and downs, has found many more downs than ups to chart lately. Its summary of the 1997-’98 TV season: It produced “the lowest level of return for new programs” in recorded TV history. That means far more failures than survivors.

“Of the 35 series that premiered last fall,” says Zenith’s annual fall forecast, “only five survived the season, an abysmal 14 percent success rate. This is in sharp contrast to the 45 percent return rate of fall ’96 freshmen.” Thirty shows canceled out of 35 introduced – quite an extraordinary accomplishment, in an utterly appalling way.

Twenty-three more shows premiered later during the ’97-’98 season, and of that number, a mere 16 have died and gone to the ever-expanding TV graveyard.

The irony is that many of this year’s new shows are from the same producers who came up with last year’s 46 flops. Each year the networks go back to the same basic suppliers. And each year the same basic suppliers have more customers to supply programs to, what with the addition of new networks, or pseudo-networks, like the WB and UPN, plus shows produced for syndication to local stations. And cable, which gobbles up programming like a doggy eating dinner.

Does all this mean that network television is a dying business? Yes and no. It’s never going to be what it was, but the networks are adapting in their effort to survive. The networks themselves will be involved in the production of more of the shows they air this year than ever before, the result of FCC rules that previously locked them out of outright ownership.

And the networks can produce all the informational, newslike programming they want, which is why NBC plugs any holes in its prime-time schedule with yet another edition of its laggardly Dateline magazine. CBC, the network with the least promising prospects, is even going to clone that national institution, 60 Minutes, with a second version on another night premiering sometime later in the season.

One TV tradition that began last season has already been continued this year. Fox has canceled a program, Hollyweird, even before its premiere, just as it did with Rewind in 1997. More new shows than ever, it seems, are being reworked and recast up to the last minute. The networks have gone from mere tinkering and tweaking to hypertinker and supertweak.

Are they worried that viewership will dwindle further, and that even more shows will flop than last season? No, they’re not worried. They’re terrified. Heh heh heh.

Tom Shales is a writer with the Washington Post Writers Group.

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