TRYING once again: TV networks unveil new products for fall

Saturday, May 19th 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

NEW YORK (AP) _ Television executives buzzed last week about some favorite future shows: a Supreme Court drama starring Sally Field, a real-life race engineered by Ben Affleck and Matt Damon, a comedy with Julia Louis-Dreyfus as a lounge singer, a farce mixing real actors and puppets.

Then, when the curtain was drawn open on the networks' fall schedules, none of these new programs appeared.

The biggest trend noticeable during TV's annual one-week frenzy of fall schedule announcements was the growing irrelevance of what they were announcing.

Each of the above shows will almost certainly make it on the air someday. Some may even be hits. But television executives are becoming more reluctant to concentrate their best work in the fall, fearing the shows will become lost in the shuffle.

``We're going to continue to be smart in how we premiere these shows and not throw seven or eight of them out at once,'' said Lloyd Braun, ABC's entertainment chief.

None of the four new shows introduced by ABC last fall _ remember ``Madigan Men''? _ will be on the schedule next September. But four other shows introduced last winter and spring did make it.

Fox is another devotee of midseason scheduling. Its new fall schedule includes a scheduled rerun each week and a cartoon, ``Family Guy,'' that was canceled for low ratings over a year ago. The absurdist puppet show, ``Greg the Bunny,'' and a comedy starring Andy Richter were left on the shelf.

``The fact that they are not on the schedule is not reflective of a lack of belief in these shows,'' said Sandy Grushow, Fox's chief executive.

The fall schedules are hardly meant to be written in stone anyway. A show's chance of success is roughly equivalent to a typical baseball player's batting average _ not even a good baseball player. Of the 19 new shows introduced by CBS, NBC and ABC last fall, five will be alive this September.

Announcement week was good for makers of dramas and reality shows, bad for movies and newsmagazine and mixed for comedies.

The strength of dramas and comedies tend to be cyclical and now, at least at the biggest networks, the pendulum has swung toward dramas. The number of one-hour dramas at ABC, CBS and NBC will increase from 26 last fall to 30 this year.

CBS will have 13 next fall, with only six comedies spread over two nights. NBC is so happy with ``Law and Order,'' still going strong after a decade, that it will air two spinoffs.

Most likely new drama to succeed? Bet on ``The Education of Max Bickford'' on CBS, with Richard Dreyfuss as a professor undergoing a midlife crisis. Along with star power, it has one of the network's best time slots on Sunday night.

Least likely? ``Wolf Lake,'' also on CBS, a sci-fi series about humans that turn into wolves. It's likely to bewilder the network's older audience.

Comedies are in a fallow period at the big networks, with viewers numbed by too many years of bad ones. NBC, which has scheduled three new comedies, recognized its own guilt by being conservative this time around.

``We could have put on 10 or 12 comedies, cookie-cutter, same-old copies of those that have happened before,'' said Jeff Zucker, NBC entertainment president. ``We made a conscious decision to go with quality programs.''

Two smaller networks, Fox and the WB, have had the most success developing comedies lately. Fox's ``Malcolm in the Middle'' is much admired and copied and the WB is introducing three promising new family comedies on Friday night.

Unlike his former ``Seinfeld'' partner Michael Richards last year, Jason Alexander appears to have a good shot with his ABC sitcom about a motivational speaker, ``Bob Patterson.'' His biggest stumbling block is being scheduled opposite ``Frasier'' on NBC.

Biggest potential disaster: NBC's ``Emeril,'' a sitcom about affable chef Emeril Lagasse, who as an actor makes a good cook.

Networks didn't quite trust reality shows when drawing up schedules last year. That's changed. ``Survivor'' is a given. ``Temptation Island'' and ``The Mole'' will return. CBS originally planned its colorful ``The Amazing Race'' for the summer, but liked it so much it will be on in the fall.

``It's a good genre to be part of the mix,'' said CBS President Leslie Moonves. ``I think everyone realizes it now.''

Meanwhile, newsmagazines are becoming yesterday's news to a certain extent. NBC will shed one of its four weekly ``Dateline NBC'' editions. CBS didn't hesitate to shift two of its three newsmagazines to different nights, although it doesn't dare touch ''60 Minutes.''

And ABC alienated its biggest news star, Barbara Walters, by bouncing around her ''20/20.'' Next fall it will move from Fridays, where it has been for nearly a quarter-century, to Wednesdays. In November, it will go off the air for seven weeks and _ still following this? _ later return on Fridays.

``The reality shows these days are taking up some of the shelf space of the newsmagazines,'' Zucker said.

If you want to see a movie during the week next fall, don't bother looking on the broadcast networks (UPN's Friday night flick is the lone exception).

ABC, CBS and NBC all eliminated a movie night from their schedules. Cable, which often shows movies uncut, uncensored and before the broadcasters, is stealing their thunder. Too many viewers also don't have the time to watch.

``We had to step up and say this isn't working anymore,'' Zucker said. ``This genre is over.''