ABC Launches New Sitcoms To Rebound From Slide

By Ken Liebeskind

In an effort to rebound from a sharp ratings drop during the February sweeps period, ABC will launch three new comedy series next month.

"The Job," starring Denis Leary, debuts at 9:30 EST on March 14. "What About Joan," starring Joan Cusack, debuts March 27 at 9:30 EST. "My Wife and Kids," starring Damon Wayans and Tisha Campbell-Martin, debuts March 28 at 8pm EST.

"Debuting new sitcoms while the season is in place will allow ABC to test audience reaction and discern if they're appropriate to put on the 2001-2002 fall schedule," says John Rash, senior VP of broadcast negotiations at Campbell Mithune Esty, an ad agency in Minneapolis.

He says it is standard practice to introduce new shows in mid-season, with many past successes, including Survivor last year. "They aren't competing against 30 to 40 new programs like in the fall, so they have a better chance," he says.

ABC's need to introduce new shows stems from a midseason slide which is being attributed to its reliance on "Who Wants to be a Millionaire," which airs four nights a week in prime time. The show has "cooled into a TV hit from a cultural phenomenon," Rash says, noting it's still successful but is starting to lose share. "Much attention has been paid to the aging of the audience."

Jeff Lindsey, an ABC spokesman, admits young viewers had been lost. It started last summer, when they tend to tune in later, he says. "When daylight savings time hit in October, we saw the numbers come back up," he says, claiming 83.5 million unduplicated viewers watched during the week of Feb. 5-11, more than the total number of viewers on some networks. "It's still performing very well for us."

In March, ABC will also move an episode of "Millionaire" back to Tuesday nights to replace "The Mole," the reality show that finished an unsuccessful nine-week run. "Millionaire" will no longer be shown on Wednesdays, but will continue to run four times a week.

The network has been criticized for relying on "Millionaire" and introducing only four new shows at the beginning of this season, two of which have already been cancelled ("Madigan Men" and "The Trouble with Normal"). But Lindsey says the network only launched four shows because it knew it had other new shows to fall back on. These are the new shows that will be introduced in March.

ABC has also had trouble retaining viewers for shows that had previously been strong. "Gideon's Crossing" and "Geena" have lost share, with Geena ranking third among adults 18-49. "What About Joan" will replace Geena for a trial six week run.

Rash reports a "tepid reaction to Geena Davis as well their entire Friday sitcom lineup." He also says, "Established signature series have entered a critical fifth or sixth year when audiences decline, such as "Spin City," "The Drew Carey Show" and "Dharma and Greg." The audience slide has become precipitous."

It has been reported that ABC's audience ratings dipped 23% during the f