New fall shows banking on comfort factor

Wednesday, September 18, 2002

NEW YORK -- Ride a new wave of familiarity as another TV season begins.

More precocious kids. Tell-tale corpses. People moving in with people who don't want them. Snarky sparring between mates. Attitude. Irony. Hugs. Even an old-fashioned Western (set in the intergalactic future).

With 34 new fall series, television remains part "lights and wires in a box" (as newsman Edward R. Murrow declared a half-century ago) and part echo chamber.

What's echoing loudest of all are expressions of comfort.

On this, the first fall lineup to respond to the trauma of Sept. 11, you can take dramatic comfort from cops- and lawyers-dispensed justice, doctors' healing and cozy family life. Plus comfort as recalled from bygone eras.

Television, like most of its viewers, idealizes the past. Just think of the sitcom "Happy Days," which, set in the halcyon '50s, aired from 1974 well into the '80s.

Now the 1980s provides the nostalgic setting for a pair of new series: the ABC dramedy "That Was Then" and the WB's half-hour comedy "Do Over," which debuts at 7:30 p.m. Thursday. Playing to an audience that would love to scrap the past year for a global do-over, each show zaps its adult hero back to high school, where life's mistakes can be nipped in the bud.

With six major broadcast networks and dozens of cable outlets vying for your attention, competition this fall is fierce. This means how each network crafts its schedule has never had more impact on the fate of its shows.

In other words: location, location, location!

"Scheduling isn't so important that content doesn't matter," said media analyst Steve Sternberg, "but a good show isn't going to succeed just because it's a good show."

Old viewing habits die hard. So any new series that isn't blessed with a strong lead-in and soft competition (and few are so lucky) demands a hearty promotional push to get it noticed. Otherwise, the viewer may not even know that show exists in the hurly-burly of fall premieres -- and roughly two-thirds of them will be history by May.

But in some cases, the message is getting through loud and clear.

Consider ABC's "8 Simple Rules for Dating My Teenage Daughter," which handicappers have picked as a likely success -- and which, for months before its Tuesday premiere, had been heavily promoted.

John Ritter, the sitcom's star, recalled how he was recently approached on the street by a well-wisher.

"He said, 'Hey man, I really like your new show -- that teenage girl thing.' I said, 'Thanks."' Ritter rolled his eyes. "The show wasn't even on yet, but after so many promos, this guy thought he'd seen it."

Never easy, building viewer awareness is even harder for the networks when, thanks to their pack mentality, their new shows seem interchangeable with shows launched by their rivals.

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