Fall Lineups, Falling Audiences
by L. Brent Bozell III
Yet another major article about prime time television's
malaise appeared on the front page of the May 11 New York Times. The networks,
it seems, are in a state of panic. They've been watching, for some thirty
years, their audiences drop, but now it's a free-fall. In the past four years,
the broadcast networks' share of the prime time audience has dropped from 68
percent to 58 percent; it is the first time ever it has fallen below 60
percent. Something desperately needs to be done to prevent, in Times reporter
Bill Carter's words, "a future of shrinking influence and disappearing
But what? How to stop, never mind reverse, the desertion of
viewers from the four full-time webs? After reading Carter's story and
analyzing the just-announced fall prime time lineups, it's apparent that the
network bigwigs have no idea. They point to an incredible lack of real talent
in a wildly expanded prime time programming universe - which is true - and yet
they are making no effort to produce quality programming, especially the kind
of quality that once invited entire households to enjoy their shows.
Just look at what's in store for the traditional
"family hour" period, that time slot when, once upon a time, whole
families could be counted on to patronize the networks. What do families have
to look forward to now? Here's a rundown of returning series.
Monday: Not bad. CBS has "Cosby" and WB, "7th
Heaven," two family-friendly, high-quality shows. There's also ABC's
"Monday Night Football." But on NBC you get the sophomoric
"Suddenly Susan" and on Fox the ultimate trash, "Melrose
Place." Grade: B-.
Tuesday: ABC's "Home Improvement," one of the best
family comedies ever but nonetheless a 9 o'clock entry for most of its
seven-year run, moves to 8, but it'll have to compete with UPN's
trite-but-innocent "Moesha" and "Clueless." What's on the
other networks, however, is unsuitable for youngsters: NBC's racy "Mad
About You," CBS's violent "JAG," Fox's politically delightful
but raunchy "King of the Hill," and WB's creepy "Buffy the
Vampire Slayer." Grade: C.
Wednesday: Sex, sex, and nothing but raunchy sex. ABC offers
"Dharma and Greg"; CBS, "The Nanny"; Fox, "Beverly
Hills, 90210"; WB, "Dawson's Creek." Grade: F.
Thursday: Less sex than Wednesday, but still far too much,
with NBC's "Friends" and WB's "Wayans Bros." and
"Jamie Foxx Show." The best bet - really, the only bet for families
at this point -- is CBS's "Promised Land." Grade: C-.
Friday: Plenty of debuts; worthy returnees are CBS's
"Kids Say the Darndest Things" and ABC's "Boy Meets
World." Grade: Incomplete.
Saturday: CBS's uplifting "Early Edition" gets its
deserved shot in the family hour, going against Fox's "Cops" and
ABC's "America's Funniest Home Videos." Grade: C.
Sunday: The week's best family night, headed by CBS's
"Touched By an Angel"; other choices include ABC's "Wonderful
World of Disney" specials and WB's "Sister, Sister" and
"Smart Guy." Fox's "The Simpsons" is always problematic,
increasingly resorting to vulgarity; it's not really a kids' show now, if it
ever was. Grade: A-.
If you think the returning fare on television is weak, wait
till you see some of the replacements for canceled shows. Where the noteworthy
premieres are concerned, you'll want to keep your children away - which isn't
to say you'll want to tune in, either. "Will & Grace" (NBC,
Mondays, 9:30) features the first activist male homosexual lead or co-lead
character in prime time history. "Brimstone" (Fox, Tuesdays, 9)
centers on a detective who winds up in hell after killing his wife's rapist.
Sit back and watch the sparks fly as this subterranean detective, on special
assignment from the devil, tracks down escapees from Hades. (I'm not kidding.)
These two alone could lose prime time another one percent or more of its
It's more of the same old gimmicky... tripe. But gimmicks,
be they Fox's grisly reality shows, cable's disgusting "South Park,"
or something less egregious, win the public's and the media's attention only
briefly; then they move on to the next craze. In the meantime, Hollywood has
virtually abandoned two time-honored traditions, the family drama and the
family comedy, even though many of those on the air are sure-fire winners. ABC
has the comedies "Home Improvement," "Boy Meets World,"
and "Sabrina the Teenage Witch." CBS boasts the dramas "Touched
By an Angel" and "Promised Land" and the sitcom
"Cosby." There are others, but not as many as there ought to be, or
as there would be if those running the networks had the brains God gave geese.
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