In an uninspired season, everything old is new again

December 26, 1990|By New York Times

The most popular program on television in 1990, "Cheers," is )) nine years old.

Only once before, in 1982, had a television series that old been the No. 1 show in television. That show was "60 Minutes," then 14 years old.

But even at its present age, 22, "60 Minutes" surged back this year toward the top of the weekly television ratings; it even finished No. 1 for several weeks of the year.

This development is somewhat akin to a couple of players from the Old Timers game competing for the league batting title. But the pool of talented television rookies is clearly running dry. Never before has television had such a hard time finding new programs that people want to watch.

The result is likely to be a future network television schedule heavily dependent on old ideas and old formats that worked before, rather than anything new and innovative. Indeed the networks hope their hits will run almost indefinitely -- even after the original stars of a series quit and go elsewhere.

The networks are also likely to move toward a slow, deliberate introduction of new series instead of the unsuccessful plunges that marked this fall.

Most of television's top shows in 1990 are the same ones that were the top shows in 1989 and 1988, and in some cases 1984, 1983 and 1982.

Besides "Cheers" and "60 Minutes" such veterans as "Murder, She Wrote" (seven years old), "The Cosby Show" (seven), "L.A. Law" (five), "Designing Women" (five), "A Different World" (four) and "Roseanne" (three) continued in 1990 to hold regular places among television's most-watched series.

What's happening is less a reflection of stagnant taste by the viewers than a reflection of the changed television landscape. Old shows are much more viable than they used to be simply because it is so hard to establish new ones.

"There is so much noise in the system that people are coming HTC back to shows that can give them a little order in their viewing," said David F. Poltrack, senior vice president of research for CBS.

The record of new series was not all bad in 1990. Three new prime-time shows -- ABC's "Twin Peaks," Fox's "Simpsons" and ABC's "America's Funniest Home Videos" -- grabbed national attention and large numbers of viewers. All three of them, coincidentally, first went into prime time last January.

But as the year comes to a close, those three have faded to some degree. "America's Funniest Home Videos" may simply be quickly exhausting a rather thin concept.

But the other two shows are among a long list of series that have suffered this year because many viewers failed to take note of their change of address. In other words, they changed the nights on which they are scheduled.

Robert A. Iger, the president of ABC Entertainment, said he believed the networks made a series of destructive scheduling moves in the fall, moving series to different times or different nights, which added up to an impression of "mass chaos" that alienated many viewers.

"The message we got from all this is we have to be very patient from now on," Iger said.

The older shows that remain popular have, for the most part, maintained their level of production and performance quality. But they have also benefited, network executives said, from the fact that viewers know what they are; more to the point, they know where and when they are.

"Viewers are saying: I'm going to stay with 'Cheers.' I know it's going to be there on Thursday night," Poltrack said. "They know they can count on '60 Minutes' at 7 p.m. on Sunday. There's a certain frustration with not seeing the show you expected to see at a certain time."

The frustration leads to channel-hopping, and increasingly viewers find shows they enjoy on other channels, sometimes shows they have enjoyed previously on network channels. (For example, repeats of "Murder, She Wrote" are doing well for the USA cable network and repeats of "L.A. Law" are helping the Lifetime channel build viewership.)

The cable industry is also investing more in original programming and it recently began a campaign to draw attention to how much more innovative some of the original programming on cable channels is than the new shows on the networks.

Even the premium channels like HBO, which once made recent-release movies and major concerts their programming staples, have begun scheduling their own regular series.

In HBO's case, a comedy called "Dream On" and a horror anthology called "Tales From the Crypt" were widely praised as two of the more inventive series in all of television in 1990.

This year's most widely appreciated program, the program that won the critical backing and the magazine covers the networks had hoped for, ran on public television stations.

Ken Burns' five-part documentary history, "The Civil War," was the program of the year in television. Even network program executives talked about "The Civil War" more often than about their own programs.

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