Despite season's failures, networks must take risks


January 01, 1991|By MICHAEL HILL

Ironically, the programming shown on MTV may sum up the basic problem facing the networks as they head, beaten and battle-weary, into the second year of the 1990s.

The irony comes because cable channels such as MTV are one of the main causes of the broadcast networks' troubles. Like a flock of pesky birds, each of them pecks away one or two ratings points from the networks, finally leaving behind a skeletal remains.

MTV's all-music video format takes away those hard-to-find young viewers, a double-whammy as it gets them out of the habit of watching network programming and keeps them from getting hooked on the weekly series that pay the bills at NBC, ABC and CBS.

But watch MTV for a while and you see that it must have troubles of its own. Its video selections are dominated by the unimaginative writhings of the tight-pants, teased hair, distorted guitars, heavy metal set and usually accompanied by heavy panting from an underwear-clad model or three.

Occasionally a more sophisticated -- visually and musically -- selection is slipped in, but within two or three videos, it's back to heavy metal. A little deductive reasoning explains the thinking behind this programming.

Heavy metal fans are known for their loyalty to their music and their willingness to spend great amounts of time and money to indulge their high-decibel habit. That means that they are just the types to spend hour after hour in front of the tube watching MTV.

So, in order to keep its core audience happy, MTV has to keep the heavy metal hits coming in depressing regularity. But in keeping those heavy users happy, MTV gives up the chance to expand its audience beyond the metallic boundaries.

The results of this fall's programming on the broadcast networks show that they face a similar dilemma. You remember the excited harbingers in September, heralding the most experimental season in years.

But what has happened? ABC's "Cop Rock," Stephen Bochco's musical series that was the leader of the chance-taking pack, has warbled its last tune. Ditto for the other fall musical, NBC's "Hull High."

"American Chronicle," the weirdly insightful documentary from the Mark Frost-David Lynch stable, is gone from Fox. NBC has also turned the weekly medical anthology "Lifestories" into a monthly special and canceled two of the most interesting new comedies, the extended ensemble of "Parenthood" and the four-character play of "Working It Out."

Though there are no certified hits among the new shows -- unless you count the dubious statistics compiled by ABC's "America's Funniest People" which is living off the fading lead-in of "America's Funniest Home Videos" -- even the shows that are surviving are disappointing.

Take NBC's "Fresh Prince of Bel Air." Rapper Will Smith was supposed to help make this a cutting edge comedy. Instead, it's been as conventional as "The Brady Bunch."

When you look at the Nielsen ratings, it's not so surprising that the nine-year-old "Cheers" is leading the pack as it remains one of the best-crafted half hours on television. Or even that a graybeard like "60 Minutes" is so far up there since it's as contemporary as the stories it does.

What is a bit surprising is those shows you find in the second 10 or so, programs like "Murder, She Wrote," "In the Heat of the Night," "Hunter," "Unsolved Mysteries," "Matlock" and even the occasional "Jake and the Fatman."

These aren't terrible, offensive shows, but they tend to be formulaic, created by the cookie cutter. And their appeal is to the networks' equivalent of MTV's heavy metalheads -- to the habitual television viewers.

These people like their heroes heroic, their villains villainous and their plots familiar. They are the types who feel comfortable with the fact that every night Ed McMahon says "Yeeaaahoooo" and Johnny Carson makes fun of Doc's suits.

The problem is that this group is aging, making it less attractive to advertisers, and shrinking, therefore reducing the overall network share of the audience. But, to compound matters, when the networks try to reach out beyond these viewers to get the young, non-habitual viewers they have been losing, they turn off this core audience.

That leads to either the utter failures that this season has brought or the small but salable numbers of shows like "Twin Peaks" and "thirtysomething."

The dilemma, then, that seems to face the networks is to keep a large audience happy even though eventually that audience seems destined to shrink and disappear, or to become a boutique that will attract new viewers but in much smaller numbers which would make them really no different to advertisers than just another cable channel.

In light of the fall's failures, the reaction of the networks will be to go back to their core with conservative programming, re-establish a commercial base. That might be good in the short run, but it spells disaster in the long run. It would be like Detroit sticking with gas-guzzling behemoths well into the '90s.

What the network programmers have to remember is that it is possible to come up with shows that can do both, appeal to the core and bring back the peripheral viewers. In other words, it's still possible to create hits that become genuine sustained national phenomena. It's tough, "Cop Rock" didn't do it and neither did "Twin Peaks," but it can be done.

"The Simpsons" is the most recent show to attain this status, but you can just as easily point to "Murphy Brown," "The Wonder Years," maybe "Doogie Howser" or even "Cheers" as examples of such programs.

If the networks want to remain major forces in the country's consciousness, which is necessary for them to flourish commercially, then they must not let the problems of this fall stop them from taking chances. If they do, their doomed fate is sealed.

Michael Hill covers television for The Evening Sun.

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