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Who Wants To Ruin A TV Network

Those of you whose memories of last Sunday's big game actually involve the game itself and not singing sock puppets or cauldrons full of nacho bean dip may have already gleaned this little Super Bowl Fun Fact: There wasn't a single turnover during the entire contest. For 60 minutes of action, neither the Tennessee Titans nor the St. Louis Rams fumbled, muffed or booted away the football. No one tossed the ball into the waiting arms of someone wearing the wrong-colored jersey. And the likes of Scott Norwood, Neil O'Donnell and Garo Ypremian won't have to make room for a fellow bumbler on the Super Bowl lowlight reel.

No, the only ball-dropping that went on Sunday happened at ABC.

I don't mean ABC's coverage of the game. The camera work was top notch, Chris Berman and Al Michaels turned in yeoman efforts, and Steve Young continues to give every indication that he'll be a fine addition to any broadcast booth if and when he decides to stop incurring weekly brain injuries. Even Boomer Esiason's flat insights were less spectacularly obvious than usual.

The halftime show? Sure, Disney's grim view of a dystopian future populated by giant stick-men and lip-synching pop stars was chilling. But consider the Super Bowl entertainment alternatives of recent years -- Up With People, KISS, Diana Ross, Michael Jackson in a salute to the world's children. I'll take my chances with the Stick Men, thank you.

I don't even have that big a problem with Barbara Walters and the gals from The View hyperventilating over the taut buttocks of football players -- though if you just want to put that in perspective on the ol' creepiness scale, just imagine Peter Jennings at the Women's World Cup fulminating on Brandi Chastain's funbags. Barbara Walters wants to act like a jackass, it don't skin my cat.

ABC's gaffe had nothing to do with the Super Bowl itself. It had everything to do with how the network used the game as a platform to promote its programming. Somewhere in the neighborhood of 88 million people watched the Super Bowl on Sunday. That's 176 million eyeballs glued to your network for three-plus hours, a captive audience ready to hear about all the ways you plan to entertain them in the coming months.

In ABC's case, those plans apparently include Regis Philbin, Dennis Franz's naked ass, more Regis and, possibly, shadow puppets.

The first hint that ABC had opted to surrender the Super Bowl field? One of the perks that comes with broadcasting the big game is the hour of prime time that follows the final gun. Gorged on Fritos and lulled into a stupor by the preceding onslaught of football, beer and carbohydrates, most Americans can't summon up the energy to blink, let alone change the channel. Thus, the network is ensured boffo ratings, even if it decides to air grainy footage of two hamsters mating.

ABC's pick for this year's coveted post-Super Bowl slot was The Practice, a David E. Kelley drama in which attorneys grapple with a legal system not entirely unlike the one we have here on Planet Earth. Nothing wrong with that choice -- except that it shows a stunning lack of creativity and long-term thought.

In the old days -- the 1980s and early '90s -- networks used the hour after the Super Bowl as a launching pad for their best and brightest new shows. The post-Super Bowl slot gave us our first glimpse of a jive-talking, fool-pitying B.A. Baracas on The A-Team, a squad of troubled Baltimore detectives on Homicide, and tedious Daniel Stern-voiced monologues on The Wonder Years. All debuted after the Super Bowl. All enjoyed nice runs.

So what changed? Simple. Remember Grand Slam with John Schneider? The Last Precinct with Adam West? MacGruder & Loud with... uh... MacGruder and Loud? They debuted after the Super Bowl, too, and, apparently, made quite the impression.

With the risk no longer worth the reward, networks opted to use the time after the Super Bowl to air established shows, old reliables with a built-in audience to guarantee big ratings. You can trace this strategy back to NBC, which, in 1996, followed up the Dallas Cowboys-Pittsburgh Steelers tilt with an hour-long, star-studded edition of the inexplicably popular Friends. That this episode with guest Brooke Shields convinced NBC to green-light Suddenly Susan only compounds Warren Littlefield's sins.

So in the grand tradition of post-Super Bowl installments of The X-Files and 3rd Rock From The Sun, ABC followed suit with The Practice. Not that it had much of a choice. Word around the campfire is the Mouse Network's creative cupboard is bare -- hence the All Regis, All The Time programming strategy. Other networks roll out midseason replacements, ABC trots out more Millionaire.

That explains why the network burned an episode of a popular show Sunday night. But it still doesn't account for ABC's puzzling promotional decisions.

Sure, the ABC ads with Reege were clever. But think about it -- is there really a person in the Western World right now who's not aware that Regis Philbin is giving away millions of dollars to ordinary Americans who boast a middling recall for trivia? Yeah, those ads about the ABC dramas were riveting. But The Practice has won Emmys, Once & Again has sewn up the weepy housewife demographic and NYPD Blue has been on the schedule for seven seasons. Why spend time preaching to the choir? And any energy spent promoting Spin City -- a show that, in all likelihood, won't be around next fall -- is energy wasted.

ABC has a pretty good show called Sports Night. It's getting trounced in the ratings. Why not use the platform the Super Bowl gives you to let people know that it exists? Drew Carey's a funny fellow. How come his show rated only a few fleeting glimpses on Sunday? Norm and Two Guys and a Girl aren't my cup of tea. But, hey, maybe it might be a good idea to inform viewers that the shows are still on the air.

The point? Eighty-eight million people tuned into your network Sunday. Why not give them a reason to come back?

The Mouse People don't need my advice, though. They run the top-rated network in the country, the first time anyone can say that about ABC in five years. Of course, that jump is largely thanks to the help of Millionaire, specials like ABC's millennial blowout and one-time events like the Super Bowl, not sitcoms or dramas. But hey, a win's a win. Or it will be, until Millionaire's popularity fades, the chickens of ABC's creative malaise come home to roost and the network scrambles to fill its schedule with World's Deadliest specials and Who's The Boss reruns.

At least they'll always have Regis.


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