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Slow start? Fuggedaboudit

There haven't been any real fireworks from the majority of fall 2000's rookie first-run shows, the last of which debuted last Monday. But with a continually fractionalized audience, sub-par appears to have become par for the course, at least in terms of initial ratings performance.

By last Monday, the major studios had premiered this season's dozen new strips-most recently the buzzed-about Arrest & Trial and Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus with Cybill Shepherd.

But also as of last week, only one new show-Twentieth's Power of Attorney- had reached a 2 weighted metered market average, according to Nielsen Media Research.

Not to worry. In 1999, six out of the eight new strips averaged under a 2 rating for their first week. But by the end of the season just two were yanked: Martin Short (2.0/6 in week one) and Joy Browne (1.4/5 in week one).

The rest, Divorce Court (2.1/7), Blind Date (1.6/4), Family Feud (1.5/5), Judge Greg Mathis (1.7/6), Queen Latifah (1.5/5) and National Enquirer (1.7/6) were renewed for a second year, even though several finished the season with averages below a 2.

The unspectacular debuts, particularly Men Are From Mars (its first-day 1.3/5 was a 29% drop from its averaged 2.1/7 lead-in share and a 17% fall from its 1.6/6 year-ago time-period average) is "just the nature of the beast these days," says Janeen Bjork, Millennium Sales & Marketing director and vice president of programming.

Also in its first day, albeit up against Monday Night Football on 45% of its stations, Arrest & Trial pulled a less than stellar 1.5/3, down 25% from its lead-in (2.0/4) and 50% from its year-ago time- period average (2.8/6).

Did some of those shows get burned by the Olympic flame? Probably. The Olympics disrupted TV routines: Some viewers fled daytime to watch coverage on MSNBC and CNBC or departed access to catch the beginning hour of the games on NBC. But only To Tell the Truth debuted in the middle of it all-the week starting Sept. 18-scoring a 1.1/4 (about even with its 1.2/4 lead-in share and 20% off the 1.4/5 year-ago time-period average).

Ratings assessments for the others were either pre- or post-Olympics.

Other underachievers were Dr. Laura (a week one 1.9/6 average, down 33% from its 2.5/9 lead-in and down 25% from the 2.2/8 year-ago time-period average); Curtis Court (1.4/5, down 17% from both its 1.5/6 lead-in and 1.5/6 year-ago average); and Housecalls (1.0/4, down 33% from both its 1.6/6 lead-in and 1.7/6 year-ago average).

Bjork explains that some of those numbers are part of a breaking-in process for new shows. Access periods are mostly locked up (Wheel of Fortune and Jeopardy, for example), she says, and "many stations would rather stick with the tried-and-true than go with the untested." So, she says, "they try [a new show] in the middle of the night, in someplace that's not pivotal."

Bjork also thinks it's too early to start looking for the hook. "It took Judge Judy [1.6/6 in week one] two or more seasons to get going. And here we are already doing a dance on [the new shows'] graves. It's not right."

Admittedly, Arrest & Trial, "where we're offering an alternative format in an environment where people [normally] see game shows, infotainment shows, etc." will require some getting used to, says a Studios USA representative.

"Slowly but surely, people will start to take notice [of To Tell the Truth]," says Joe Scotti, the studio's president of domestic distribution and marketing.

Then there's Marc Rosenweig, King World's senior VP of programming and production, who says of Curtis Court: "We're optimistic. We know it's a solid product, and, if you know it's a solid product, you'll prosper."

Low debut numbers are "commonplace in syndication," notes Katz TV's Bill Carroll. "It's more unusual to point out how well a show is doing."

Sounds like a cue to us. As the first syndicated strip to debut Aug. 28, Power of Attorney has had more time for viewers to get to know it. But Power's 2.4 household rating for the week ending Sept. 17-beating veterans Judge Mills Lane (1.7), People's Court (2.1) and Judge Greg Mathis (2.3)-looks good in anybody's book.

As Paul Franklin, Twentieth Television's executive vice president and general sales manager, puts it, "Let's face it: We don't want to jinx ourselves. But much the way Divorce Court started strong last year [the only show to debut above a 2 in the metered markets], we're out of the box.appearing like we're the lead horse."

Katz's Carroll agrees, "Most believe Power of Attorney has solid numbers. Other than that, the audience doesn't seem to be overly embracing anything."

What's pushing Power, Carroll points out, is its pairing with Divorce Court on FOX stations in top markets.

With that said, Carroll, like Bjork, isn't about to be the doomsayer on the sleepy new efforts, others being Moral Court (a first-day 0.9/3, 25% off both its 1.1/4 lead-in share and 1.3/4 year-ago average) and Lover or Loser (a first-week 0.5/1 in a shared syndication and cable window, 50% off its 0.7/2 lead-in and 0.9/2 year-ago time- period average).

"To be fair, it takes time for shows to find an audience. I would say that how they do through October will determine people's perception of them," says Carroll, who sees definite syndicated vital signs when a show can match its lead-in and build on its year-ago time-period average.

That's something not even Power of Attorney could boast its first week (2.0/7), which is even with its lead-in, but 13% lower than the time period a year ago (2.4/8).

The sleeper of the group may be celeb-less Street Smarts, which trumped Mars, Venus and Arrest & Trial in its debut.

With all that said, "these shows will get tweaked anyway," says one observer. "The producers and hosts barely met each other six weeks ago."