PASADENA, Calif. -- At first, Sandy Grushow could hardly believe his ears.
As most TV executives do in the morning, the president of Twentieth Century Fox Television had called a telephone hot line that gives the previous night's Nielsen Media Research ratings. When he heard the numbers for the premiere of NBC's new drama, "Providence," he thought it was a mistake.
Despite some bad reviews and a time slot that hadn't been very successful for NBC, "Providence" finished higher than any drama premiere since "ER."
That's no guarantee of success, but it had done better than most new shows do. Thirteen million TV sets were tuned to NBC by viewers who wanted to check out "Providence." A few days later, Fox's animated comedy, "The PJs," also scored unexpectedly high ratings in its debut.
What both shows had in common was the chance to bow far from the traditional September start of the TV season, when networks trot out dozens of new shows in the hope that a handful will catch on.
For all of the excitement that the fall premiere season means for viewers, many in the business fear it has become an anachronism or, worse, counterproductive.
"I think most programming executives understand and appreciate the value of launching a show at a time when there is not nearly as much volume as there is in the fall," said Grushow, whose company produces programs like "Ally McBeal" and "Dharma & Greg."
"But the system is working against them," he said. "The system is rigged against hit creation."
September debuts meant something when there were only three broadcast networks; a new show had the chance to stand out. Now, with six networks airing original prime-time lineups, and cable also competing for attention, many programs are lost in the crowd. Last season, a crushing 43 series debuted for the six networks in September.
It's no wonder many of them disappeared before most viewers knew they were on. It was much the same this past September. There were no new hits, and the season was judged to be a flop. But was that premature? "Becker," which joined the CBS schedule in late October, has done well and this month's new shows at least alleviated the depression of network executives.
The non-September shows have an advantage, with networks able to bombard viewers with enough advertisements to let them know what's coming. Absent competition, the shows attract more curious channel surfers.
Newer networks seem particularly attuned to the value of avoiding September. The WB launched a promotional blitz to build a buzz for "Dawson's Creek" last January. "King of the Hill" was a midseason hit for Fox, and "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" launched midyear for the WB. Fox is introducing two prime-time cartoons in March.
Over the past five years, there's been little change in the percentage of fall premieres that were still around a year later, said Stacey Lynn, vice president of broadcast research for TN Media, an ad-buying firm. But during the same period, the survival rate of midseason replacements has risen steadily.
So the solution is simple, right? How about one or two shows premiering each week, 52 weeks a year?
Don't bet on it. That would force the industry to change the way it's been doing business since the dawn of television.
TV's financial structure is built on a cycle that begins when network executives unveil their fall schedules to advertisers in New York each May. That launches a buying frenzy known as the "upfront," when companies lock in commercials for much of the next season. The practice lends at least a little fiscal stability to an unpredictable business, and it would be severely disrupted by an ever-evolving schedule.
Hollywood's talent tends to be locked into contracts that end with the TV season in May or June, and there's a dearth of writers and actors for shows that don't follow the traditional development clock.
"We are all to some extent a prisoner of the system that has been in place for so long," said Lloyd Braun, chairman of Buena Vista Television, which makes the new "Felicity" and "Sports Night."
NBC Entertainment President Scott Sassa was the beneficiary of good timing for "Providence." But asked about TV's rigid calendar, he expressed little desire to rock the boat and doubted things would fundamentally change.
Instead of trying to change the system, networks this year are generally giving their new September series more time to settle in and find an audience. That has especially been the case at ABC, where the critically praised "Sports Night" and "Cupid" have been kept on the air despite ratings that are mediocre or worse.
The system appears to be one of those things that people in the business love to complain about but ultimately know won't change. Grushow will have to be satisfied with small victories: He persuaded ABC to launch his company's new show, "Strange World," in midseason instead of September.
"I'm really afraid," Grushow said, "that the system is so ingrained that it's the proverbial tail wagging the dog."
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