Sunday, May 14, 2000

Networks roll dice, announce new fall lineups

        They've used up all their lifelines. They've looked at the audience polls. They've phoned a friend, I'm sure.

        Now it's time to decide: How many new shows will network programmers add to fall TV lineups?

        How many of my favorite series will they cancel?

        How many more Who Wants to Be a Millionaire copycats will debut this fall?

        We'll find out this week, when the six networks announce their fall schedules. NBC leads off Monday, followed by ABC and WB (Tuesday), CBS (Wednesday) and Fox and UPN (Thursday).

[photo] Dick Van Dyke's Diagnosis: Murder
(CBS photo)
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        It's always the biggest — and bloodiest — week of the season.

        The networks will announce their fall slates, which can make millionaires out of unknown actors. Who will be the next Calista Flockhart, Katie Holmes, Jennifer Aniston, Julianna Margulies, Keri Russell or James Van Der Beek on the covers of TV Guide, People and eventually the tabloids?

        To make room for the new shows, the networks will give their final answer on dozens of shows. Some decisions are as obvious as Regis Philbin's $100 questions; others are not.

        On the bubble are Sports Night, Chicago Hope, Diagnosis: Murder, Martial Law, Early Edition, Family Guy, Norm, The Hughleys, Roswell, City of Angels, Twenty One, Profiler, The Pretender and Stark Raving Mad.

        Stark raving mad is how we'll feel about a cancellation or two. Or about network decisions to move a favorite show to a new night, opposite another favorite, before the TV season starts Oct. 1, after the Summer Olympics on NBC.

        We hate these chess games, but the networks love them. They put Dawson's Creek against Beverly Hills 90210 (which signs off at 8 p.m. Wednesday), or Dharma & Greg versus Just Shoot Me.

        Chicago Hope against Frasier? Stat! No wonder the hospital drama is near cardiac arrest.

        By week's end, we'll know the hottest new TV programming trends — which may last until Halloween.

        A year ago, it was the the “youthquake.” All the networks copied WB's teen and young adult shows. Remember Odd Man Out; Ryan Caulfield: Year One; Safe Harbor; Oh, Grow Up; Cold Feet; Mission Hill; Freaks and Geeks; Manchester Prep; and the aptly titled Wasteland?

        Funny thing, but most of the successful new shows this year feature mature performers:

        • Sela Ward and Billy Campbell on ABC's Once and Again.

        • Martin Sheen, John Spencer, Allison Janney and Richard Schiff on NBC's The West Wing.

        • Tyne Daly as Amy Brenneman's mother on CBS' Judging Amy.

        • Kathleen Quinlan and Dixie Carter on CBS' Family Law.

        • And Mr. Millionaire himself, Regis Philbin.

        It's also wise to ignore the list of can't-miss hits immediately picked by advertising buyers. Their predictions last June in USA Today included Cold Feet, Snoops, Odd Man Out, Ladies Man, Stark Raving Mad and Oh, Grow Up. To be fair, they guessed right on Once and Again, The West Wing, Family Law and Judging Amy.

        Fall TV season announcements, made each May, can be very deceiving. For three straight years, Fox has canceled a show before its debut (Rewind, Hollyweird, Manchester Prep).

        The nation's runaway No. 1 show, Who Wants to Be a Millionaire, wasn't on ABC's fall schedule a year ago. It premiered in August, and didn't become a weekly series until January.

        Nobody could have predicted a game show would knock off ER and Friends this season — or that the celebrity Millionaire would be the May sweeps highlight.

        The best new comedy, Malcolm in the Middle, was held by Fox until midseason.

        Until we actually see the shows, it's difficult for TV critics to assess the season. After watching the pilots, we accurately predicted a strong year for drama and a lousy one for comedy. (Remember the half-hour Ally reruns from Ally McBeal?)

        The most promising sitcom, Jay Mohr's Action, proved too adult for the mainstream audience. Despite many “TV finally grows up” columns, it turns out that American viewers hold the free, over-the-air broadcasters to a higher standard than the cable and satellite services they buy. @subHed:Work in progress @text:

        My 15 years as a TV critic have taught me that fall schedules are a work in progress. But they do answer lots of questions.

        Fox will be the most interesting to watch. It has the most holes to fill, losing two mainstays (Beverly Hills 90210 and Party of Five) on top of last fall's disaster.

        NBC desperately needs new comedies to replace Suddenly Susan, Veronica's Closet, Mike O'Malley, Jesse and/or Stark Raving Mad. NBC also could scrap Saturday dramas, which will be replaced in February by the WWF's new XFL football league.

        ABC must find a time slot for Once and Again when Monday Night Football kicks off. (Will ABC rub out NYPD Blue again?) ABC also might dump Friday's TGIF comedies, after losing Sabrina, the Teenage Witch to WB. CBS has to fix Fridays, too.

        Among the familiar faces with possible fall shows are Michael Richards (Seinfeld), Melissa Gilbert, Bette Midler, Geena Davis, Christine Baranski and producers Steven Spielberg, Chris Carter and Darren Star (90210).

        Who will make it? Can any survive a season? We won't know the final answer for months and months. John Kiesewetter is Enquirer TV/radio critic. Write: 312 Elm St., Cincinnati 45202; fax: 768-8330.