Attention Television fans: the predictions for the fall season are in, and they are not promising. Advertising executives are forecasting that not a single new series will be a hit.
"Unfortunately, the main thing that stands out on the network schedules is that not much stands out," wrote Steve Sternberg, senior vice president for broadcast research at BJK&E Media Group, in his analysis of the fall lineup.Betsy Frank, senior vice president of Saatchi & Saatchi Advertising, concurred. "There's not a lot to get excited about," she said.
Each spring, the major advertising agencies assemble reports on the new season for their clients in preparation for what is known as the up-front market-- the period when advertisers buy commercial time up to a year in advance.
The time that is not sold up front this month and next will be sold later in smaller blocks, and presumably at higher rates, on the so-called scatter market.
Like presidential election polls, preseason television predictions tend to be pretty similar across the board. And, more often than not, they turn out to be accurate.
Last year, for example, virtually all the agencies predicted that ABC's "Grace Under Fire" would emerge as the season's highest-rated new series. Sure enough, the program is currently ranked fifth among all prime-time series.
For this fall, the consensus is that none of the 29 new network series will be an unqualified success. "I don't think there's anything on the schedule that's going to be a breakthrough," said Paul Schulman, president of the media buying firm that bears his name.
To be sure, there is no formal definition of what constitutes a "hit" or a "breakthrough" program. Even a series that rates near the top of the Nielsen charts may not be considered a hit if it loses too much of the audience from the show preceding it.
Last season, though, there was wide agreement that both "Grace Under Fire" and NBC's "Frasier" were series that became hits.
Many analysts would also include ABC's "NYPD Blue" on the list; it finished the season among the top 25 programs, and dramas are traditionally harder to establish than comedies.
Sternberg of BJK&E rates new programs as either "passing," "borderline," or "doubtful." To get a grade of passing, "a new series must win its time slot with at least 20 percent of the viewing audience (a "20 share") and hold on to at least 80 percent of the audience watching the program immediately before it.
For the first time in seven years, Sternberg did not give any new series a passing mark.
"Madman of the People," an NBC sitcom that will be broadcast Thursday nights at 9:30, right after "Seinfeld," was Sternberg's choice for the fall's highest-rated new series. But it did not receive a passing grade because he expects it to lose more than 20 percent of the "Seinfeld" audience."
Frank rates new programs on a scale of 1 to 10, with 10 being the best. This year, the highest grade she gave was an 8.
She also predicted that the top-rated new series would be "Madman of the People," which stars Dabney Coleman as a curmudgeonly reporter who finds himself working for his daughter. Frank forecast that the program would lose close to 30 percent of all "Seinfeld" viewers.
"'Madman' has everything going for it except the show," she said.
The agencies say their gloomy predictions for this fall are also a result of highly competitive prime-time schedules-- in some cases, the networks have pitted promising new series against each other --as well as a shift toward dramas.
Two programs that have received generally high but not outstanding marks are "Chicago Hope" on CBS AND "E.R." on NBC. Both are hourlong medical dramas, the first produced by David Kelley, of "Picket Fences" fame, and the second by Michael Crichton, the best-selling author.
The series are scheduled to run opposite each other, Thursdays at 9 p.m. Had one of them received a different time slot, both might have qualified as potential hits.