The Small-Screen Scramble Continues
by L. Brent Bozell III
Reflections on some recent plot developments in the
long-running soap opera "As the TV Industry Turns":
--Marc Gunther's incisive piece in the January 12 issue of
Fortune updates and analyzes the ongoing television story of the decade: the
broadcast networks' shrinking viewership. This decline has reached the point
where, as Gunther writes, "the networks are no longer reliable profit
makers." Therefore, vast corporations like Disney increasingly treat
their owned webs "not as loss leaders exactly, but [primarily] as ways
to... promote their more lucrative operations" - movies, theme parks, and
Alas, Gunther buries his lead; not until page five of the
six-page article does he quote an anonymous television executive who
illuminates the why behind the what. The cause of the networks' long-term
slump, declares the executive, is their preoccupation with appealing to
18-to-49-year-olds: "Everybody's going after the same writers, the same
concepts, the same audience. They're programming themselves out of business...
This is a dying business, and very few of the people involved want to admit
that the patient is sick." It follows, then, that almost no one will
acknowledge that a cure is needed, and that the cure is family programming.
--Not so long ago, however, one infirm network made those acknowledgments. In
1996, a floundering CBS, having failed in its effort to attract a young, urban
audience with racy, "Friends"-like sitcoms, changed its approach,
positioning itself as the most family-oriented web. Adding such shows as
"Cosby," "Promised Land," and "Early Edition" to
the already successful
"Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman" and "Touched By
an Angel," CBS built a largely wholesome lineup that carried it to
victory in the November '97 sweeps. Score one for old-fashioned fare. But
effective early this month, CBS took a major step backward when it replaced
"Dr. Quinn" with "The Magnificent Seven," a violent,
TV-14-rated Western, at 8 o'clock Saturdays."Dr. Quinn" deserves far
better. It blazed a trail for CBS's other hit family dramas and for five years
has performed well in the ratings. Its numbers are down, but it still won its
time slot during the November sweeps. Moreover, shelving it in favor of
"The Magnificent Seven" means that the network's entertainment
chief, Leslie Moonves, has reneged on last summer's promise to air only
family-friendly shows between 8 and 9 p.m.
In making that promise, Moonves cited "Dr. Quinn"
as a series he was especially proud of - and appropriately so. "Dr.
Quinn" espouses the values parents want instilled in their children. It
presents marriage positively, promotes respect for parents and other authority
figures, and otherwise asserts the importance of family. Moonves should honor
his commitment and return "Dr. Quinn" to the family hour, where it
--If CBS continues to retreat from its pledge to serve
families, UPN may benefit. UPN's boss, Dean Valentine, took power only a few
months back and hasn't had the chance to truly put his stamp on the part-time
web, but his statement earlier this month about what he's planning for the
fall was encouraging.
Valentine told TV critics that next season, his programming
philosophy will be "UPN for UPS." United Parcel Service drivers, he
explained, "are men, women, black, white, all sorts of races, all ages.
They're making a good income, they have houses, they have families, they have
kids. They are the American middle class." Even so, he added, they are
mostly ignored by the networks, which prefer to "program for a sort of
psycho-yuppie in Manhattan."
--It's much easier to assess "Seinfeld" now that
the uproar over its May departure has died down.
First, have you noticed that it is, almost certainly, the most unintentionally
polarizing hit in television history? For many years, on Friday mornings in
offices throughout America, there have been those who discussed - dissected,
even - the previous night's episode, while others in the same office, baffled
and perhaps annoyed by the series' popularity, simply could not understand
what the fuss was about. It's hard to imagine "I Love Lucy" or
"Mary Tyler Moore" or "Cheers" eliciting similarly strong
feelings, positive or negative. (Not a few of Norman Lear's shows were highly
provocative, but they were designed to be. All "Seinfeld" wants to
do is entertain, and it still gets on many people's nerves.)
Second, even though "Seinfeld" can be quite funny,
it's also seriously flawed. Its main flaw, which it shares with plenty of
today's sitcoms, is an obsession with sex. The four regulars, all of them
single, often were sexually active, and a few years ago, when a recurring
character announced she was a virgin, she was treated as if she were from
another galaxy. In terms of wit, "Seinfeld" is without peer, but in
terms of subject matter, it's too much a product of its times.
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