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February 26, 2000

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Is NBC Trying to Kill Twenty-One?

       Don't waste a lot of time trying to figure out decisions by network executives. You'll only aggravate an ulcer or give yourself an Excedrin headache. That's the case with NBC's latest merry-go-round move with Twenty-One.
       Consider this: here's a classic game, albeit much easier than its original version of 40-plus years ago. NBC has tried it on Sundays, Mondays and Wednesdays. Of all its 11 episodes, Twenty-One has been a bona fide success Wednesdays at 8.
       Not of the variety of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire, to be sure. However, the Maury Povich quizfest has hit the Nielsen top 25 three times on Wednesdays and has done quite well every time out at midweek, except when ABC has planted the bomb of Millionaire directly opposite. Super Bowl week, had the Big Game and its post-game show not dominated the ratings, Twenty-One would have cracked the top 10.
       Sundays and Mondays, where the show has faced much stiffer competition, Twenty-One has been a mediocre performer. Yet, the show has scored 16 per cent higher ratings in the 8-9 p.m. hour than in its two outings at 9-10 Mondays.
       So what does the brilliant scheduling corps at NBC do Thursday? Pull the quiz off for two weeks, instead of the originally scheduled one-week hiatus, and drop it right back in an impossible slot, Mondays at 9----directly opposite CBS' Everybody Loves Raymond and Fox's Ally McBeal. Not to mention what has become a strong revival of theatrical movies on ABC.
       Consider the lead-in given Twenty-One: Freaks and Geeks, a youth-oriented hour which has been pulled not once, but twice from the NBC schedule---including for the entire February sweeps.
       This may all be happening for a variety of reasons. However, if one is a student of network television, for which scheduling decisions are often a parallel to the kinds of lapses in judgment admitted to by Darva Conger, only four logical possibilities can be deduced for this option:
---NBC feels Twenty-One has a more compatible demographic with the surrounding series on Mondays.

---NBC feels Dateline NBC has a better audience flow on Wednesdays leading into The West Wing and Law and Order.

---Since ABC regularly schedules a two-hour movie from 8-10 or 9-11 Mondays, NBC possibly could see a mid-evening slot as a defense against another unscheduled direct hit from Who Wants to Be a Millionaire, which decimates 21 head-to-head, just as it has the other two networks' quiz shows.

---NBC is trying to kill Twenty-One.
       The first argument makes little logical sense. Twenty-One, which draws its strongest demographic from the 35-54 age bracket, is not supremely compatible with either dramatic series sandwiched around it. A teen drama and a action series at 8 and 10 and a quiz show between hardly creates the image of audience flow.
       Some merit can be tacked onto the compatibility of another night of Dateline NBC with the two serious dramas following. However, Wednesday has been one of the lesser-successful of the many nights of Dateline.
       As for the idea of placing Twenty-One in a "protected slot," mark my word, if ABC decides it wants to run Who Wants to Be a Millionaire opposite, the network will find a way to do it.
       No conclusive evidence is available to prove the final of the four theories. However, circumstantial evidence is aplenty.
       Consider Maury Povich's visit to Larry King last week. He told Povich if the quiz is renewed, he will insist it be moved to New York next year to create an easier schedule between Twenty-One and his daily talk show. Is that a legit possibility, or is that a smokescreen to cushion a potential cancellation? I've seen such a ton of times. Lucille Ball was allowed to announce her "retirement" from television in 1974 when, in fact, her Here's Lucy was being habitually beaten in the ratings. Bea Arthur, once she saw Maude get clobbered midway through its final year, announced she was "leaving the show at the end of the season." Is Maury creating a convenient "out," in case NBC decides to pull the plug?
       Is NBC finding the rich payoffs more expensive than originally anticipated? Twenty-One has given away money at a much faster rate than WWTBAM. In a purely dollars-and-cents examination, no one from the network has spoken up and heavily defended this show as one it will stick with indefinitely.
       However, I repeat---and, for the life of me, this is a headscratcher---why on earth do you move a show to a slot where it has a poorer track record than one in which it regularly wins its time period?
       Plus, NBC is doing with Twenty-One what the network did with The Man from U.N.C.L.E. in the 1960s and CBS did with WKRP in Cincinnati in the 1980s. U.N.C.L.E. was moved five times in its four years on the air. WKRP was switched eight time in four years. In less than two months on the air, Twenty-One has been moved to four different time slots on three different evenings. The audience eventually abandons a show it has difficulty finding.
       I am not optimistic about the future of this show if NBC leaves it on Monday at 9. Surely, no network boss is having pangs of nostalgia, thinking people who are survivors from the show's original era will find cute the decision to place Twenty-One back in the time slot where Charles Van Doren built his legend.
       We'll be able to tell in three weeks of Mondays where the tape will fall. Perhaps if the numbers are what I fear they will be, NBC will get desperate enough to pull out the one trump card it has steadfastly refused to do: bring back Herb Stempel and give him another shot. I've been told by more than one source the network and producers want to be as far away from Stempel as they can. Got a question for you: if ol' Herb, at 71, could bring them ratings, why not give him a shot?


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