And CBS struggle to win back viewers distracted by war news, cable, VCRs


February 03, 1991|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,Sun Television Critic

Another television war begins tonight.

It is a war that's more important in some ways than the gulf war to the old-line broadcast networks -- ABC, NBC and CBS.

Tonight is the first big prime-time showdown of the February "sweeps" ratings period -- one of the crucial months during which audiences are measured and future advertising rates are determined.

Sweeps periods are always important to the television industry. But never in recent memory has one been as significant as the month of entertainment shows that start tonight. There are two reasons for that.

First, the networks are reeling from one of their worst fall seasons ever. More shows than ever were introduced. But the networks did not produce one hit. The decadelong trend of audience erosion to cable, independents and VCR viewing continues unabated.

And then came the real war -- the one in the Persian Gulf.

The networks were gung-ho for the war as the countdown to Jan. 15 began. Top executives at all three networks told television critics gathered on the West Coast last month that they would offer round-the-clock coverage. Viewer reaction to that coverage, the officials predicted, would show that the public still tuned to ABC, NBC and CBS in times of national crisis.

But that did not happen. The audience turned to cable's CNN -- something that had been happening more and more for years despite the networks' best attempts at denial. The popular culture vocabulary suddenly included terms like the "CNN syndrome" -- to describe viewer addiction to continuous war coverage.

And then the networks were faced with a new fact: that the war was not going to be over in one glorious, "Top Gun" week of prime-time programming, like some grand miniseries. It was going to grind on. As a result, hard decisions had to be made on an hourly basis about when to stay with entertainment and when to go to news.

The tick-tick-tick the executives heard was not the clock on "60 Minutes." It was the multimillion-dollar losses meter. Gross advertising losses at one network for one big night of prime-time programming (like tonight) are estimated in the $3 million to $4 million range. This comes at a time when profits are at an all-time low because of shrinking audience and a recession throughout the entire economy.

That's some of what makes the February sweeps so crucial to the networks.

Starting tonight, they will literally attempt to rearrange the national agenda, wrench our consciousness far enough away from the gulf war to make room for lots of entertainment.

The networks will try to make us care as much about a dramatized version of the courtship of Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz ("Luci & Desi: Before the Laughter," Feb. 10 on CBS), or Jesse getting married to Rebecca in a two-parter on "Full House" (this Friday and Feb. 15 on ABC) as we do Scud missiles being fired at Israel or Pentagon briefings.

The networks have no choice. They helped create the appetite for war coverage with their initial attempts to compete with CNN. When the networks blew out all prime-time

programming the first three nights of the war, they told their viewers, in effect, "There is nothing else more important in the world."

Now, with fun and games on the agenda, they run the risk of showing us Cher's navel ("Cher . . . at the Mirage," tomorrow on CBS) when something might be happening to our men and women in the gulf that the majority of viewers wants to know about.

But it's a risk they cannot afford not to take. For economic reasons, they have to get viewers back.

They'll go after them with tried-and-true formulas and an overdose of nostalgia -- network television will feed so voraciously on its past, in fact, that it borders on video cannibalism. Cultural anthropologists will tell you that such obsession with and recycling of the past is an indicator of postmodern decline (a nice way of saying the networks' final days).

Tonight's big events are representative of the month's programming: nostalgia shows, ripped-from-the-headlines crime-docudrama, big-name stars in made-for-TV movies and historical miniseries. Reviews follow:

Son of the Morning Star'

ABC has been trying not too subtly to link "Son of the Morning Star" to the 1988 miniseries blockbuster, "Lonesome Dove." The two-parter on George Armstrong Custer is not a "Lonesome Dove."

In the realm of historical miniseries, "Morning Star" falls closer to the failed "Mussolini: The Untold Story" than, say, the interesting "North and South."

There are many problems with the four hours of television that start tonight at 9 on WJZ-TV (Channel 13) and resume tomorrow at the same time. The first is Gary Cole as Custer. The kindest thing to say is that he simply is not up to such a demanding role. He is so awkward in some of the more intimate scenes with Rosanna Arquette, who plays

his wife, Libby, that he makes Arquette seem stiff. Arquette is not a great actress, but she is not a stiff actress, either.

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