1990 Tv Season: Innovation Was In, But Viewers Tuned Out

December 23, 1990|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,Sun Televison Critic

"Tried and true equals dead and buried."

--NBC's Brandon Tartikoff,

Summer 1990

They gave us "Cop Rock." But we wanted "Matlock."

They gave us "Hull High," but we said goodbye and hugged "Hunter" to our Nielsen bosoms like it was a hit show. Angela Lansbury was showing up on fewer and fewer episodes of "Murder, She Wrote," but more and more of us tuned in each week for our weekly fix of the known and predictable in Cabot Cove -- a sweet cup of Sunday-night tea. Meanwhile, almost nobody wanted to spend any time in Evening Shade, Ark.

"We were part of a bold experiment this fall aimed at changing lifestyles," says Andrew Susskind, the president of Imagine Television, Ron Howard's production company. "But, maybe, it turns out that those lifestyles or patterns were too entrenched to change."

Susskind was talking specifically about the failure of the networks' plan this year to bring young and affluent viewers back to Saturday night with more innovative programming -- such as NBC's "Parenthood" (which Imagine produces) and ABC's "Twin Peaks" and "China Beach."

But he was also talking about a larger storyline for Television 1990: The broadcast networks' overall blitz of bold programming this fall, and the American television audience's near total rejection of it for the warm bath of the familiar.

Maybe two facts tell this story of massive rejection better than anything else. More new shows were introduced this fall by the broadcast networks -- ABC, NBC, CBS and Fox -- than ever before. Yet, four months after the onslaught began, there is not one new hit show.

That is surely the most dramatic story of the television year.

But it is only the surface wave of a far deeper and more profound current in television, which Susskind and other executives are alluding to when they speak of patterns and lifestyles. The continued growth of cable and the mounting loss of audience for the old-line, broadcast networks -- ABC, NBC and CBS -- has been television's story-of-the-year every year since 1980. That pattern continued and shaped major developments this year.

The broadcast networks' combined share of the prime-time audience fell to 62 percent in 1990. That's down from 67 percent in 1989 and 85 percent in 1980.

Cable is now in 58.6 percent of (53.9 million) American homes. That's up from 55.6 percent in 1989 and 22 percent in 1980.

There were shifts in our viewing habits and lifestyles in just the space of this year, too. The most noticeable was the movement by viewers to the Cable News Network (CNN) during a time of national crisis.

With their coverage of the assassination of John Kennedy in 1963, the broadcast networks became a kind of informational central nervous system during times of crisis or change.

CNN arrived in 1980. And by 1986, when Challenger exploded in a blue Florida sky, viewers turned to ABC, NBC, CBS and CNN for information and reassurance from the anchor desks. With its 1988 political coverage CNN had become an equal of the networks in terms of national events and the rituals of televisual participation in those events.

With its coverage of the Gulf crisis this year, CNN moved into a league by itself, leaving the broadcast news operations behind.

There was much commentary this fall when it became clear for the first time that CNN was watched throughout the world. When it was understood that leaders like Saddam Hussein watched CNN and sometimes reacted to what they saw, the cable network was treated with a new respect by many analysts.

But something else happened with CNN's Gulf coverage -- something more important, which went largely unnoticed. CNN truly became television's first teller of the news.

One media observer compared TV news with traditional newspaper coverage to explain that change. He said CNN was now playing the role once exclusively held by morning newspapers, while the broadcast networks were forced to function as "afternoon newspapers." Since ABC, CBS and NBC could no longer compete on that front, they had to retool their approach to focus on reaction and analysis of the news, which CNN had delivered.

That's a big change. CNN is now at the center of the nation's informational nervous system, the place most of us will turn in the immediate aftermath of crisis.

The movement toward cable, videocassette recorders and independent channels and away from the broadcast networks is near the roots of most major stories in television this year.

Take the tremendous success of Ken Burns' "The Civil War" on PBS. The scheduling of the program was PBS' belated response to the changing television universe. Cable channels, such as Arts & Entertainment and Discovery, were eating away at the public television audience. PBS had to do something bold to get viewers' attention.

So the network took the best show it had and stripped it across five straight nights -- something it had never done.

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