What do viewers want from TV in this autumn of uncertainty? A month into the 2001-02 season, the answer appears to be friends, familiarity, law and order.
NBC's Thursday-night leadoff comedy, "Friends," despite competition from CBS' "Survivor Africa" and the fact that its characters get no wiser as they grow obviously older, has finished no worse than second in the national Nielsens since the season belatedly began.
Rachel's pregnancy, the result of an improbable one-nighter with Ross, is shaping up as the most avidly watched prenatal plot since Lucy was carrying Little Ricky.
An even bigger development for NBC, which has jumped to an early overall lead, is the popularity of its "Law & Order" franchise. The original series, its drawing power undiluted by spinoffs and its own ubiquitous reruns, is posting personal-best ratings in this, its 12th season. Its sophomore spinoff, "Law & Order: Special Victims Unit," is cracking the top 10, perhaps because anxious viewers are opting to stay home on Fridays, traditionally a low sets-in-use night. And its latest variation, the Sunday-night "Law & Order: Criminal Intent," is edging into a top 20 dominated by returning series.
Those include NBC's "Frasier," "Will & Grace," "Just Shoot Me" and "ER" (which hit No. 1 last week with the episode in which Sherry Stringfield returned to the cast); CBS' "Everybody Loves Raymond," "Becker," "Judging Amy" and "CSI: Crime Scene Investigation"; and ABC's "The Practice" and "Monday Night Football."
CBS' military drama, "JAG," is having a banner season, which is not surprising given the widespread interest in and support of our armed services at the moment. NBC's "The West Wing" has become more attractive to viewers, not less, at a time when there's no shortage of real drama emanating from Washington.
Considering that the major networks' coverage of the Sept. 11 attacks, our military response and anthrax scares have cost them millions of dollars in lost advertising revenue, it has to be something of a relief to them that the new season has produced an unusual number of new hits, not all of them time-slot phenomena.
NBC promos declare that "Inside Schwartz," about a sportscaster wannabe whose love life is refereed and telestrated like an NFL game, is TV's No. 1 new comedy. Its fat numbers are deceiving, however. Hammocked between "Friends" and "Will & Grace" on Thursdays, reruns of "The Michael Richards Show" might even make the top 20. Viewers are deserting "Schwartz" in droves for the second half hour of CBS' "Survivor," the first half of which was trounced by "Friends" last week.
NBC's bonafide comedy hit, underscored by the network's giving its producers a full-season go-ahead last week, is "Scrubs," a medical comedy with smarts, heart and a surprising underlay of frankness about the limitations of doctors and hospitals.
Given how well "Scrubs" is doing paired with "Frasier," it's remarkable that the CBS competition at that hour on Tuesdays is performing so well. "The Guardian," a well-done drama about a corporate lawyer doing forced community service as a judicial advocate for children, has claimed a spot in the top 20 two weeks in a row.
The biggest surprise of the season, however, is NBC's "Crossing Jordan," which has actually improved substantially on the ratings of its Monday-night lead-ins to finish in the top 25 twice. More than any new series, "Crossing Jordan" dispels the presumption that viewers would be squeamish in the aftermath of the deadly terrorist attacks. A stylized detective show about a murder-solving medical examiner (played by Jill Hennessy), "Jordan" regularly features scenes of doctors cracking wise even as they autopsy maimed or decomposing bodies.
After "Crossing Jordan," bright spots for the networks are few. CBS' "The Education of Max Bickford," starring Richard Dreyfuss as a cranky college professor, has dropped steadily on the Nielsen chart after a top-10 initial outing. Also iffy is "Citizen Baines," CBS' drama about a newly ousted U.S. senator (James Cromwell). But "Baines," unlike "Bickford," has been edging up, not down, in the ratings. It has also matched or bettered the quality of its debut.
CBS' CIA series, "The Agency," has been trounced by "ER" despite having a strong lead-in in "CSI." ABC's more cartoonish CIA show, "Alias," hasn't fared much better on Sunday nights, but will probably survive on the basis of its strong showing with young adults. ABC's jaded courthouse drama, "Philly," starring Kim Delaney, has fared poorly against the gentler jurisprudence of "Judging Amy."
And given the lower expectations of the younger networks, UPN's "Enterprise" and the WB's "Smallville" count as hits.
As for flops, there are many, most of them predictable and not worth lamenting. The one exception is Fox's comedy "Undeclared," a letter-perfect take on college dorm-life. Perceptive and funny, but probably too subtle for its own good, it looks to be headed for early expulsion.
So-called "reality" shows have lost whatever allure they had.
Finally, numbers are down for all the prime-time magazines, including "60 Minutes," suggesting that viewers are getting more news and information than they can digest at other times of the day.
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