LA Times, January 14, 1995
RICK DU BROW, TIMES TELEVISION WRITER
Commentary: The switch to Wednesday night has been a disaster for the gentle series.
What has CBS done to "Northern Exposure"?
By moving the honored series--set in an Alaskan town--to Wednesdays from its successful Monday slot, the network may well have given it the kiss of death, as its ratings have plummeted.
The show's only hope seems to be that viewers will seek it out again after one of those risky, often inexplicable, network moves that has killed many a good series before.
Well, you may say, "Northern Exposure" is not quite the wondrous excursion into the human comedy that it used to be. That's true. But it's still better than most of what's on in prime time. And thus far in the 1994-95 season, it ranks as a solid No. 25 among all series.
But that position was established before the program switch 10 days ago, which found the new medical series "Chicago Hope" moving into the coveted 10-11 p.m. Monday slot.
Since the switch, it's been a disaster for "Northern Exposure," a show that is unique because its flavorful tone and character actors have been more important than its stars such as Rob Morrow, who is leaving the series.
Last week, "Northern Exposure" sank to 64th place among 94 network shows, losing about 24% of its audience.
And on Wednesday, it got blitzed again, averaging only a 9.7 rating and attracting just 16% of the audience. It finished last in its 10-11 p.m. slot, well behind ABC's "PrimeTime Live" and NBC's "Law & Order."
If there was a silver lining, it was that "Northern Exposure" was still the most popular show of the night for CBS, which went into the dumper with its new Wednesday lineup.
"Northern Exposure" also edged up a bit in its last half hour, a glimmer of hope that may indicate it still has the stuff to hook viewers--and that some of the audience is in the process of finding the program on its new night.
But Wednesday "was not a pretty picture for CBS," said a competitor at NBC. And that was certainly true.
CBS' new midseason Wednesday lineup of four sitcoms--"Women of the House," "Hearts Afire," "Double Rush" and "Love & War"--plus "Northern Exposure" finished last for the night, even behind Fox TV.
Even though the four sitcoms came from two of CBS' top producers--Linda Bloodworth-Thomason is behind "Women of the House" and "Hearts Afire," and Diane English's company is turning out "Love & War" and "Double Rush"--the old magic hasn't yet been there in the all-powerful ratings.
Competing series such as "Roseanne," "Ellen" and "Beverly Hills, 90210" also helped demolish the CBS lineup.
That may have been somewhat predictable, but it would be a shame for CBS to just sit there and watch "Northern Exposure" wither. If viewers don't return in sufficient numbers, the network should feel bound to at least give the series another chance with better protection and a more attractive slot.
"Northern Exposure" is a gentle series--which makes it vulnerable in the increasingly crass, hard-edged arena of prime time. But, on Mondays, it had become part of a popular lineup that often had a touch of class.
With "Murphy Brown," it had been CBS' principal signature for the night.
Now CBS has another stylish programming block in the making on Mondays with "Murphy Brown," the new Cybill Shepherd sitcom "Cybill" and "Chicago Hope." And there's nothing wrong with going with the new and the fresh.
But "Northern Exposure" is hardly ancient--it debuted in 1990 and quickly became a sensation with its quirky, free-spirited and humane outlook, an ingenious mix of drama and comedy.
In today's merciless network competition, however, "Northern Exposure" is in an unenviable position. Because of its gentle nature, it may not have the ability to survive the move as well as more muscular series such as "Home Improvement," "Grace Under Fire," "Frasier," "Roseanne" and "Law & Order," which have shown the ability to take their audiences with them.
"Seinfeld," which didn't appear to have muscle, suddenly developed some when it got "Cheers" as its lead-in.
Muscle counts for a lot at the networks today as the networks, increasingly under pressure from new TV alternatives, try more desperately than ever to build entire nights of programming to hold audiences. Shows like ABC's "My So-Called Life," another gentle and humane entry, have a tough time surviving.
Nothing in recent years demonstrated the power of building a wall-to-wall night of hits as much as NBC's Thursday lineup, anchored by such smashes as "The Cosby Show," "Cheers" and "L.A. Law."
TV viewers will stay home for certain nights of programming, and that was one of them. And NBC's successful Thursday tradition continues anew with "Seinfeld" and "ER."
But "Northern Exposure," along with "Murphy Brown," helped shift the best night of viewing of the week to Mondays on CBS, which once again looked at least somewhat like the Tiffany Network.
It wasn't exactly a match for CBS' Saturday schedule in 1973--"All in the Family," "MASH," "The Mary Tyler Moore Show," "The Bob Newhart Show" and "The Carol Burnett Show"--but it still was the week's most talked-about lineup.
This season, another potent night in the ratings has been developed by ABC on Tuesdays, with "Home Improvement," "Grace Under Fire" and "NYPD Blue." You can have the best writers, actors, directors and producers in the business, and maybe--just maybe--you'll have a hit all on your own, like "The Cosby Show" and "Roseanne." But throw in a great time slot, and you'll get a faster loan at the bank.