Every Witch way but up

Excluding 'Sabrina,' most new off-net syndicated shows drop from their lead-ins and year-ago time period averages

For ABC's discarded Sabrina, the Teenage Witch to beat ABC's prized Spin City, someone had to have cast a spell on something.

Yet that's the story unfolding with this year's off-network freshmen series Sabrina, now in originals on The WB and the only show to perform any real ratings magic.

Among the 11 newcomers, Sabrina's top-rated 2.6/6 weighted metered-market average for the week ended Oct. 7 (according to Nielsen Media Research) was the lone entry to grow from 1999's comparable time-period average (up 8% from 2.4/5) and lead-in average (up 30% from a 2.0/5).

Runner-up Spin City (2.4/4)-no Millionaire but still high-profile at ABC-came in close but was down 11% from its year-ago 2.7/6 and slipped 17% from its 2.9/15 lead-in.

Both are distributed by Paramount Domestic Television, and sleeperSabrinaprobably cancels out slow-bloomer Spin City.

"I'm in a really good place," says John Nogawski, the studio's president of distribution. He's also steeringMoesha (2.1/5, 9% off its year-ago 2.3/6, 5% below its 2.2/5 lead-in) and Clueless (1.4/4, down 13% from its 1.6/5 year-ago but up 8% from its 1.3/4 lead-in).

"I do have a lot of shelf space occupied by our television shows," Nogawski adds.

However, "[each show's performance] matters, even if they're all Paramount's," says one TV-station source. "If you're a station that bought a show that's not working, you will be upset."

Typical in TV but nevertheless annoying, explanations for the Sabrina- over- Spin City situation vary.

"I'm not surprised about Sabrina. By putting it on between 5 and 6 p.m. [its usual daypart], you'll get adolescents and teenagers to watch. And if you're a 10-, 11-, 12- or 13-year-old, Sabrina is must-see TV," says Garnett Losak, Blair TV's director and vice president of programming. "I know this because I have a 10-year-old daughter."

In contrast, "a more traditional show like Spin City doesn't do as well in access or pre-access times, particularly on the nontraditional [youth-skewing] WBs, UPNs and Foxes of the world," says Katz TV's Bill Carroll, who points out that late-night, which attracts fewer rating points, would attract more of Spin City's fan base.

Other reasons for Sabrina's off-net strength include The WB's hyping the show's prime time acquisition and launch vs. ABC's delaying Spin City's new fall-season premiere, shutting out potential syndicated buzz.

And beyond everyone's favorite "it's too soon to tell" line, more-obvious party spoilers are the Olympics, election coverage and baseball play-offs.

To reiterate, Paramount's Nogawski says: "It's way too early for Spin City. Talk to me in a month, and we'll be having a very positive conversation."

The big picture is that none of the new guys have approached, much less nipped at, the heels of current off-net leaders, Warner Bros.' Friends (4.9/9, for the week ended Oct. 7) and Columbia TriStar's Seinfeld (4.8/9 for the same period).

While last year's top-rated 3rd Rock From the Sun (2.6/6) from Carsey-Werner and The Drew Carey Show from Warner Bros. (3.2/6) appear healthier than most, the bulk of the off-nets are down from their lead-in and year-ago numbers. On the heels of Sabrina, Spin City and Moesha are Warner Bros.' The Jamie Foxx Show (2.0/4, 13% below its year-ago 2.3/5 and 20% less than its 2.5/5 lead-in) and Warner Bros.' Suddenly Susan (1.7/5, 19% lower than its year-ago 2.1/6 and down 26% from its 2.3/6 lead-in).

Unlike Friends and Seinfeld, none of the newer off-net entries had a permanent piece of NBC Thursday real estate, hurting their break-out odds in syndication.

One source asked Dick Robertson, Warner Bros.' syndication chief, what the deal was with Drew Carey, normally a top-25 network show.

"He said it was 'all men'that tuned in. There weren't enough women to support it," says the source, who adds that a syndicated show may attract specific viewers but must grab more than just one group.

In key examples, Moesha and Jamie Foxx have been labeled African-American niche players; Sabrina, teen girls; Suddenly Susan, women. Among other freshmen, there's the young-girl-targeted Clueless and older-aimed Cosby (1.0/2, down 9% from its year-ago 1.1/3 and even with its 1.0/3 lead-in).

Moreover, "off-net strips and concurrent network runs are very symbiotic," says Blair TV's Losak. "A program that's canceled from the network [for example, Suddenly Susan, Cluelessor Cosby] that goes into syndication is a loser every time. That's why some get lost in the shuffle."

Further low scorers are strip drama 7th Heaven (1.5/4, down 12% from its 1.7/5 year-ago, down 6% from its 1.6/5 lead-in); and weeklies Pretender (1.5/4, up 7% from its 1.4/4 year-ago, down 12% from its 1.7/4 lead-in), Early Edition (1.4/5, down 7% from its 1.5/5 year-ago, 13% from its 1.6/5 lead-in) and Nash Bridges (1.3/3, down 15% from its 1.5/4 year-ago, down 28% from its 1.8/4 lead-in).

On a positive side, most of the off-nets are at least matching and, in many cases, creaming the rookie first-run efforts. "I think it's everyone's intent [to replace certain low-rated first-run shows with off-net shows]," opines Robert Raleigh, Carsey Werner's president of domestic TV distribution. "I really believe that the predictability of off-net and its known environment for advertisers make them a logical alternative to the risky roll of the dice with a lot of the first-run shows that are being offered."

Being realistic, Carroll says, "With the current fractionalization of the audience, we keep changing where we put the bar in both network and syndication..[W]e used to be doing the pole vault, and now we're doing the high jump."