Networks scramble to salvage the season


January 04, 1991|By Michael Hill

AS A SEASON OF high expectations for the networks turns into a winter of discontent, the television critics head for the sunny southland of California to hear the excuses, to view the carnage and to appraise the plans for the grand renewal.

It has to be considered near crisis time here in the middle of the 1990-91 season. The network share of the audience continues to decline just as the bottom is falling out of the advertising market for all media.

The fall season, despite its highly touted risk-taking aura, failed to produce any new hit shows. CBS lost huge amounts largely due to the failure of its expensive deal with Major League Baseball to pay off this fall.

Meanwhile, Mideast coverage continues to drain large amounts of money from news budgets of all the networks. Belts are tightening and costs are being cut all over the broadcast landscape.

As with so many industries that get in trouble, broadcast television looks to Washington for a solution, trying to get relief from regulations that limit its production of programs and keep it out of the syndication business.

Should the rules be changed -- and we should know fairly soon -- more mega-mergers in entertainment are expected, with Disney a leading candidate for buying CBS while NBC might buy a movie studio, possibly Orion.

Cable faces its own regulatory challenges as it tries to keep the momentum of the '80s going into the '90s. But cable increasingly appears to be a mature industry in need of shaking out some of its weaker elements as it begins to face up to the fact that you have to do more than put a wire in front of someone's house to get a new customer.

Fox hasn't folded its tent, but it, too, seems to have lost the up-and-coming image as "The Simpsons" suffers in the ratings from its move to Thursday and Fox no longer has a runaway hit that draws attention to its other products.

As for PBS, it's trying to put its house in order under the leadership of a single programmer, Jennifer Lawson, but public television continues to have its internecine struggles as it tries to capitalize on having the biggest hit of the year in "The Civil War."

The word is that it's been kind of cold in Los Angeles and, even if it warms up outside, the chilliness will probably stay in the air in the meetings between the press and the TV stars and executives over the next two weeks. That's because it appears the grades on this mid-season report card aren't going to be the type a school kid would be proud to show his parents.

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