Fall Season: Networks Strike Out Again
by L. Brent Bozell III
Summer is the broadcast television networks'
equivalent of baseball's spring training. In each case, it's a hopeful time,
when new shows have the potential to make a splash in the upcoming season,
just as rookies do; and broadcast networks dream of finishing atop the final
standings, just as teams do.
The major difference is that in baseball,
there's a winner for every loser, whereas in today's broadcast network game,
almost everyone is losing. The statistics tell much of the story.
During the week of September 21, the networks
rolled out not only the bulk of their debuting series, but also the vast
majority of the fall premieres of their returning shows. As always, they had
extensively promoted this programming, and magazines like TV Guide had devoted
considerable space to the new season, further widening and deepening public
awareness of the supposed small-screen delights ahead.
How did the public react? Unfortunately for
ABC, CBS, and the rest of the broadcast networks, plenty of viewers were in
front of their sets - but tuned to basic cable channels, the audience for
which increased 14 percent over the corresponding week last year. Meanwhile,
after all the hype, the broadcast webs were down a staggering 8.5 percent from
their 1997-'98 premiere week.
The results capped a splendid third quarter of
'98 for basic cable, which increased both its rating and its share 13 percent
over the third quarter of '97. Clearly, part of the growth is attributable to
Monicagate; CNN, MSNBC, and Fox News Channel each drew far more viewers than
it did last summer. But family-oriented channels performed strongly as well --
Nickelodeon was up 11 percent; the Cartoon Network, 23 percent -- suggesting
yet again that the broadcast networks' obsession with attracting twenty- and
thirtysomethings, to the exclusion of practically everyone else, is a mistake.
The terrible numbers for the broadcast networks
confirm they are in a disastrous free fall. During '97-'98, they lost almost
two full rating points (i.e., almost two million households) from the previous
What to do? Some industry bigwigs have a clue.
At a panel discussion last month in New York, veteran sitcom producer Marcy
Carsey ("The Cosby Show"; "3rd Rock from the Sun") argued
that the webs have gone too far in pursuing the young-adult demographic, have
"forgotten who they are and what their mission is. They've given away
whole segments of their audience...If they don't have the kids [as viewers]
now, what is going to happen when [those children] grow up?" Carsey's
right, but she doesn't always walk it like she talks it: she contributed to
the family-unfriendliness of prime time when she produced "Men Behaving
Others are clueless. Far down the
insightfulness scale from Carsey is NBC entertainment boss Warren Littlefield,
who apparently wants to reach adults who think like children. At a Hollywood
fall-season kickoff luncheon, Littlefield was asked to name his favorite
non-NBC series and chose Comedy Central's celebration of vulgarity,
"South Park." (He claimed his selection was based on "seeking
to stay popular with my kids.") Littlefield thus joins CBS's Leslie
Moonves as a network programming chief who seems to believe "South
Park" would be a desirable addition to his schedule.
A short-term aid in dealing with prime time
tastelessness is TVGuardian, a device which reads a television show or
videocassette's closed captioning, mutes off-color words, and provides clean
substitutes in the closed-caption field. It has two settings:
"tolerant," which lets pass certain milder terms, and
"strict," which doesn't.
The device, marketed by Principle Solutions of
Rogers, Ark., carries a suggested retail price of $199.95. Early this year,
its inventor, Rick Bray, expressed irritation with Hollywood's foul-mouthed
fare to ABCNews.com: "People talk about letting your kids see the real
world. Well, my house is the real world and we don't talk that way."
I salute Mr. Bray's ingenuity. But no
contraption will ever mute what's really wrong with the typical prime time
show. It's not just the offensive language, it's the obnoxious storylines
themselves. And what's on TV is not just morally offensive, it's
One of the most hyped new series this year is
UPN's "The Secret Diary of Desmond Pfeiffer." It's different, all
right. This sitcom centers on Pfeiffer, the butler for President Lincoln. Now,
I haven't watched - and won't watch -- this foolishness, but I couldn't escape
the promos. In this week's episode we find the president gallivanting around
the White House in women's underwear as he's exposed as a - yuck! yuck! -
cross-dresser. I'm not kidding.
Such is life in TV land, where moronic
programming has no limits. It makes you want to reach not for the remote
control, but for a hand grenade.
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