Tried-and-true shows the ratings winners

At the midpoint of the 2000-2001 television season, this year's crop of successful shows looks...well, a whole lot like last year's crop of successful shows....

At the midpoint of the 2000-2001 television season, this year’s crop of successful shows looks…well, a whole lot like last year’s crop of successful shows.

While Canada’s conventional networks have scored the odd breakthrough with new prime-time series, it’s mainly the established dramas and sitcoms that have pulled big numbers for them. Indeed, according to media buyers, ratings have been up this season for most of the major returning shows, such as Frasier and Ally McBeal.

‘The programs that are long-time hits are all doing exceptionally well,’ says Sherry O’Neil, vice-president and director of broadcast buying with Toronto-based OMD Canada. ‘The same thing is happening in the U.S.’

As the specialty TV universe expands, O’Neil explains, more and more viewers are drifting away from the prime-time offerings of conventional broadcasters. And that makes even it tougher to build a new series into a hit.

‘With an increase in the amount of programming, it has become more and more difficult for new programming to break through into the top ten,’ she says.

One result is that some highly touted new shows with big-name stars attached have fared much less well than expected. Both The Geena Davis Show and Bette (starring Bette Midler) are on serious life support, while John Goodman’s Normal, Ohio (Global) and The Michael Richards Show (CTV) have both been canned.

Other disappointments among the fall’s new series include The $treet (Global), Deadline (Global), Daddio (CTV) and P.R. (CBC), none of which showed any ability to hold viewer attention.

Still, there are a few modest successes among this season’s newcomers. Doug Hoover, head of programming for Global Television Network, says the David E. Kelley high school drama Boston Public has been a pleasant surprise for the network. And he has hopes that the small-town comedy Ed and the new mid-season show Three Sisters will prove sleeper hits, building a loyal following over time like Northern Exposure before them.

Rick Lewchuk, vice-president of program planning and promotion at CTV, says the network is pleased with its performance in the first half of the season. The strength of the current lineup, he says, can be gauged by the fact that the network hasn’t managed to find a slot on the schedule for one of its key acquisitions, the WB hit Felicity.

Both the White House series The West Wing and long-running courtroom drama Law & Order have performed well for the network, delivering audience increases of 51% and 11% respectively over last season’s figures.

CTV’s Ally McBeal is also up nearly 10%, thanks in large part to Robert Downey Jr.’s widely publicized stint on the series. But a hotel snitch and the ever-zealous efforts of the U.S. drug enforcement authorities have likely brought an end to that gig, putting the show’s focus back on the stick-insect appeal of Calista Flockhart. The smart money says Ally’s resurgence will be short-lived.

While CTV’s numbers have generally improved across the board, the network still has just one show in the Canadian top ten: ER. The rest belong to Global, which currently holds a first place share rating in prime-time viewing.

‘Our intention is to dominate series programming,’ says Global’s Hoover. ‘We focus on appointment television, and we do well with top-ten programming every night.’

The network’s strong lineup should be further buoyed this spring by Survivor: The Australian Outback, which made its debut after the Super Bowl, and by the return of popular cop series NYPD Blue, which sat out the first half of the season.

Global also benefited when parent company CanWest Global Communications acquired the television assets of WIC Western International Communications last year. This allowed the network to strip-mine hit series such as Everybody Loves Raymond and Becker from its former rival ONtv – much to the annoyance of advertisers and buyers who are now forced to pay Global’s higher rates in order to keep their spots on those shows.

CTV’s failure to overtake Global in the ratings race can be blamed squarely on the faltering of last year’s smash Who Wants To Be A Millionaire, which now commands four hours of the network’s weekly schedule. Ratings for the game show are down 11% from last season and still falling – a drop-off that OMD’s O’Neil calls ‘the most significant disappointment this season.’

Big clients tend to devote most of their television buy to top-rated programming, she explains. So the decline of an established property like Millionaire is more problematic for them than the failure of a new show.

On the whole, buyers say, it’s a little difficult to offer a clear verdict on this past fall. The season got off to a late start because of the scheduling of the 2000 Olympic Games, which took place during the latter half of September. And a number of other major events – the Canadian and U.S. federal elections, the death and funeral of Pierre Trudeau – diverted considerable viewer attention away from regular programming.

If any of the conventional networks benefited from all this, it was CBC, which saw its prime-time share increase from 8 to 9.7 during the fall.

The documentary series Canada: A People’s History proved especially successful for the public broadcaster. The ambitious production – which cost a whopping $25 million – defied many skeptics by delivering solid audience figures.

For the spring, one of the network’s goals is to build a stronger following among young viewers, with the new Thursday-night entries Edgemont and Our Hero.

Elsewhere, the big story for the second half of the season will probably be the new Survivor series. Buyers predict a ratings bonanza for Global – although, as O’Neil points out, the show’s Thursday 8 p.m. time slot will also force the network to bump Friends to 7:30. And that could mean some loss of audience for the long-running sitcom.

Will the ‘reality’ television trend sparked by the likes of Survivor continue? Quite likely, buyers say – especially if the widely anticipated actor strikes in Hollywood halt TV and movie production come late spring or summer.

Also in this report:

- If at first you don’t succeed: Canada’s conventional networks have a slew of mid-season replacements in store p.B13

- A channel surfer’s paradise: What’s in store from the specialties p.B14