Dramas Send New Sitcoms 'Over The Hill'

Sitcoms are on the decline, news magazines are standing pat, David E. Kelley rules, ``Must See TV'' is vulnerable and youth is still being worshiped.

Those are the conclusions you have to make about the 1999-2000 TV season now that the broadcast networks have just unveiled their fall prime-time schedules, in a prelude to what could be one of the most interesting new seasons in many years.

Don't celebrate yet. It's too early to equate ``interesting'' with ``good.''

The snippets of film that networks showed advertisers in New York aren't enough to predict whether a given show will actually be worth watching.

Still, the shift away from new sitcoms to dramas by most networks could signal a deep change in the TV industry. Of the 35 new series scheduled this fall, only 13 are sitcoms. Just two seasons ago, the networks' 1997-98 schedule had 19 new sitcoms, only two of which -- NBC's Veronica's Closet and ABC's Dharma & Greg -- survive today.

In the last five seasons, audiences have been lukewarm, at best, to new sitcoms, so the networks are turning to dramas to try to bring back viewers from cable channels, where there are few original sitcoms.

There also will be a pause, at least, in the growth of the TV newsmagazine. If the networks hold to their proposed schedules, this will be the first season in the last four that no additional newsmagazines have been added in prime time. Newsmagazines are far cheaper to produce -- and thus more profitable to the network -- than entertainment programming. But clearly the future of prime time isn't in airing more news.

While the original 60 Minutes remains a top show for CBS, 60 Minutes II, introduced earlier this year, has been no more than an average ratings performer. And on most nights, Dateline NBC fails to crack the Nielsen top 10.

None of the newsmagazines will ever be the constant talk of the office, like Seinfeld and Cheers were. It takes a drama or a comedy to excite viewers, a message that appears to have gotten through to the networks.

Of course, top-notch entertainment requires great writing, above all else, and right now David E. Kelley is apparently viewed as the guy who can save network TV. Already the creator of Ally McBeal, The Practice and Chicago Hope, Kelley will take on two more TV projects.

One is the bizarre idea of taking bits and pieces of Ally McBeal episodes from its first two seasons, repackaging them with unaired footage and whipping up for Fox an additional half-hour show, airing at 8 p.m. Tuesdays, that amounts to Ally McBeal lite. The idea, apparently, is that there are so many subplots in an hourlong Ally McBeal that some of the show's office escapades can be recut without making it seem like a repeat. The idea probably also assumes there are many Ally fans who missed the first season and would see this new version as fresh material.

Will it work? Doubtful. But never count out Kelley. He's amazing.

That golden touch is why ABC has picked up Kelley's new detective series, Snoops, starring Gina Gershon as the head of a mostly female detective agency (it also includes Paula Marshall, ex- of Cupid). It will air at 9 p.m. Sundays and lead into The Practice, giving viewers two straight hours of Kelleyvision.

If he's successful with these new shows, the networks may have to erect a statue to this man, probably in front of his own bank. Most scriptwriters, even the most prolific, would be hard pressed to churn out a dozen hour-long TV scripts a year. This year, Kelley did nearly 50 for Ally McBeal and The Practice.

He also has promised CBS he will take a stronger hand in writing and revitalizing Chicago Hope, which moves to 9 p.m. Thursdays, where it will battle the once-invincible NBC Thursday-night lineup now anchored by Friends, Frasier and ER. Although the five NBC Thursday shows are routinely in the ratings top 10 -- with ER, Frasier and Friends usually Nos. 1-3 -- the number of viewers is down more than 10 percent from when Seinfeld was in the mix and other networks conceded the night.

CBS is betting Chicago Hope will do surgery on NBC, though, when that show was last on Thursday, opposite ER in both shows' 1994-95 debut season, ER sent the CBS drama into ratings shock.

ABC also will try to put a dent in Must See TV by bringing in Wasteland, a new youth-oriented drama from Dawson's Creek creator Kevin Williamson.

Fox, The WB and UPN also will play the youth card. Fox will move its newest animated show, Family Guy, to 9 p.m., while The WB will move its surprise hit Charmed, into that same hour. UPN will go with its best chance to break out of the ratings cellar, WWF Smackdown!, a two-hour show designed to capitalize on the phenomenal popularity of wrestling on cable, particularly among boys and young adult men.

Of course, youth is still what TV is all about. At least two-thirds of the 35 new shows planned for this fall are aimed at 18- to 34-year-old viewers, and half of those shows feature actors who probably think of the 1970s as ancient history.

CBS stands out as the network with a new series slate that doesn't start with the assumption that acne is a key dramatic ingredient.

Although TV's youth fixation is unfortunate, there are some other trends that are more troubling.

One is the color of the prime-time landscape, which this fall will remain overwhelmingly white. Bill Cosby still holds down two shows for CBS, but none of that network's new programs appear to have have a central character who's black, Hispanic or Asian. Fox, once a network that featured racially diverse shows, appears to have no new shows with minority headline characters. And the landscape at NBC, ABC and The WB likely will continue to be mostly pale.

UPN, which has endured criticism -- much of it valid -- about the flimsy and superficial nature of its shows with largely African-American casts, is the sole network with a racially diverse lineup.

In an era when broadcasters are in a panic about losing viewers to niche cable channels, it seems absurd that they wouldn't want to produce lineups that would be inclusive of all segments of American culture.

Another idea that seems to have further dropped from sight in the fall schedules is TV's ``family hour,'' the notion that between 8 and 9 p.m. shows should go light on sex and violence.

Fox has two 8 p.m. dramas, Manchester Prep and Ryan Caulfield, that, based on previews shown to advertisers, seem heavy on sex and violence for their early-evening time slots.

Fox did, however, reserve a later slot for Action, a sitcom that will further push broadcast TV's language barriers. Its characters will routinely utter foul words -- but then they will be bleeped, much like is done on South Park. That way, viewers can tell that the character is using the f-word, see, without actually hearing it.

One network, CBS, did seem to acknowledge prevailing sensibilities in its fall schedule. It was ready to go with Falcone, a gritty drama about a mob war in New York, but decided it wasn't appropriate to introduce it in the wake of recent school shootings.

``It's not the right time to have [a show about] people being whacked on the streets of New York,'' CBS President Leslie Moonves said. ``It just didn't feel right.''

So the network will wait until next January to show people getting whacked on the streets of New York.

While there are some changes coming next season on TV, some things may never change.

Herald television critic Terry Jackson can be reached by e-mail at or by phone at 305-376-3530 in Miami-Dade or 954-764-7026, ext. 3530 in Broward. You can also read his columns online at www.herald.com