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Grand Finale Now a Must For a Popular TV Series

Departing shows that get big sendoffs gain notice - and high ratings

WILL Sam and Diane rekindle their old flame? Will Rebecca's new romance blossom? What will happen to Carla, Woody, and the rest of the quirky cast of characters who say goodbye this Thursday night on NBC's "Cheers"?

Those are the TV questions of the week that will be answered in a 98-minute final fling of the popular 11-year series that will feature actor Tom Berenger, Chicago Bears coach Mike Ditka, and model Kim Alexis.

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Although "Cheers" has attracted the most publicity - a host of newspapers and magazines has already paid it tribute - it isn't the only long-running show to end this season. Like a drawn-out display of fireworks, the past two weeks have marked the end of four other series - "Quantum Leap," "The Wonder Years," "Knots Landing," and "A Different World." The seven-year series "Designing Women" is also scheduled to go off the air this month with some degree of pomp and circumstance.

Ending shows with grand finales is not a new phenomenon, says Ron Simon, TV curator at the Museum of Television and Radio in New York City, "but I think it's something [networks] are going to market much more than they have in the past. It's really a way to create event programming."

Indeed, the final episodes of "Knots Landing" and now "Cheers," have taken on a Superbowl flavor. The last edition of "Knots Landing" was preceded by a three-hour "block party," in which stars recalled favorite shows. Before "Cheers," Bob Costas talks with the cast for 22 minutes in the same sort of sum-it-up fashion (Costas' pre-"Cheers" show starts at 9 p.m.; "Cheers" begins at 9:22).

"The TV audience in the case of finales has a very intense loyalty to see everybody perform for the last time," says Michael Dann, an ABC consultant and a former head programmer at CBS and NBC.

"It's very much of a graduation-day ceremony in which there's an awful lot of sentiment involved, and people just love to identify with these situations," he says. "No major show will ever go off the air in the future without this kind of event."

Robert Batscha, president of the Museum of Television and Radio, concurs. "A couple of years ago, there were a couple of long-running shows that were just canceled, and one of the great laments of the producers was they weren't given the opportunity to bring the show to a conclusion," he says.

"I think what you're seeing now is the idea of giving long-running shows the opportunity to bring it to a natural conclusion."

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Bonanza endings also serve as a reward to the actors, he adds. "The `Cheers' people have lived together for many years," he says. "It's been their daily life for probably professionally as long as many of them can remember and to have it end not only thematically but emotionally is very important for them."

The first show to air a finale was "The Fugitive" in 1967. That two-part ending "probably got the highest rating of any dramatic show that year and made people very conscious" of the high ratings potential for such resolutions, Mr. Dann says.

Other shows followed suit, including "The Mary Tyler Moore Show," "M.A.S.H.," "Gilligan's Island," "Dallas," and "The Cosby Show." When shows aren't being terminated for financial or casting reasons, finales are "a good way to get a lot of attention and publicity," Mr. Batscha says. "And these days the networks are interested in the loyalty of the creative community, and this is a nice way of making them feel good."

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