<I>Providence</I> Won't Deliver TV Networks from Gloomy Trend

Despite the NBC drama's success, broadcast TV's outlook remains grim.
Author:
Publish date:

The networks are down so far that

Providence

looks like up.

Providence

, a slightly soapy new drama from

NBC

about a Los Angeles plastic surgeon who returns to her roots in Rhode Island, has become the biggest success story of the 1998-99 television season since the Peacock, a unit of

General Electric

(GE) - Get Report

, rolled it out last month. In truth, the show is pretty much the season's only hit.

After four weeks, the show has become the fourth-highest-rated drama on television, according to

Nielsen Media Research

. Last week,

Providence

pulled a 10.6 Nielsen rating and an 18 share, putting it 11th among all shows, aside from

Super Bowl

-related programming. (Rating measures the percentage of households watching a show compared with the total number of homes with televisions, while share measures the percentage of televisions actually in use that are tuned to the program.)

Compared with other shows introduced this year,

Providence

looks even better. Last week, the show ranked third among all new offerings, and one of the shows it trailed,

Fox's

Family Guy

, got a huge artificial boost because it appeared after the Super Bowl. And

Providence's

strength is particularly unusual for a couple of reasons.

First,

Providence

appears at 8 p.m. Friday, which isn't traditionally a heavy television-watching time. Second, the show has faced widespread critical pans. In a story headlined "Must Flee TV," a play on NBC's "Must See TV" slogan, influential

Washington Post

reviewer Tom Shales tagged

Providence

as "dismal."

But the negative notices haven't turned off viewers, who seem to want a little

Patch Adams

-style schmaltz as an anodyne for the serious cop and hospital dramas that are standard network fare. (Perhaps not coincidentally, the reviewers are mostly male, while

Providence

is targeted at women -- unlike, say,

Homicide

, a favorite of critics that has never been a commercial success.)

Despite the bad reviews, NBC has been quick to hail

Providence's

success as a hopeful sign for the broadcast television business, which has lost close to half its prime-time audience to cable in the past two decades. "It is a very strong statement on the power of broadcasting," says Kassie Canter, NBC's senior vice president. "Our whole Friday night is strong now."

"We're four weeks into this, and we're not seeing signs of fading," says Preston Beckman, NBC's executive vice president for program planning and scheduling. "We're monitoring the emails that we get, and they're overwhelmingly positive."

Ad agency media buyers agree that

Providence

has turned into a solid winner for the network. "It's a nice little thing for NBC," says Rob Frydlewicz, vice president and media research director of

Foote Cone & Belding

. "The fact that it's held on for four weeks is worth noting."

But the bigger picture remains grim, says Jean Pool, director of North American media services for

J. Walter Thompson

. Broadcast television is "such a disastrous business," she says. "We're seeing such erosion in the audience."

The figures bear that out. Just five years ago,

Providence's

rating would have been lower than the average prime-time household rating recorded by NBC,

Disney's

(DIS) - Get Report

ABC

unit or

CBS

(CBS) - Get Report

. During that season, NBC averaged an 11 rating, ABC a 12.4 and CBS a 14. But since then, the three networks have all shown enormous declines in viewership. NBC is off 20%, while ABC is down one-third and CBS has fallen 35%.

That makes

Providence's

10.6 rating reason for cheer, even though its financial impact on the network is pretty small so far. (To have a noticeable impact on NBC's bottom line, the show would have to move closer to

ER's

18.7 rating, which is a long way off.)

Says Pool, "I couldn't imagine being a program director -- they've got to be getting danger pay."

An

L.A. Times

story Tuesday offers more proof that Disney, whatever its short-term problems, remains more focused on long-term profitability than any other company in the entertainment industry.

The story, by Claudia Eller, details the company's plans to shrink its investment in live-action (as opposed to animated) movies. Disney spent $1.2 billion on live-action films last year; it plans to spend $600 million this year, and its future target is closer to $300 million.

That means Disney won't be making any more flicks like

Armageddon

, which cost $150 million. Instead, the company plans to focus on lower-cost family films like

The Parent Trap

, which are more likely to generate video sales and ancillary revenues. Disney Chairman

Michael Eisner

has grown irritated at the fact that Disney's profits dropped badly last year even though the company had higher U.S. box-office revenue than anyone else.

"Nineteen ninety-eight was a tough year for us. As in 1991, we succumbed to the overall industry trend of paying more and more for talent in front of and behind the camera," Eisner wrote in his annual letter to shareholders last month. "In too many instances, profits did not materialize from the revenues achieved by our films."

Of course, the move toward cheaper movies means Disney executives will have fewer chances to hobnob with

Bruce Willis

,

Ben Affleck

and other expensive A-list celebs. To other industry moguls, that thought might be an anathema. For Eisner and Disney studio chief Joe Roth, it's just good business.