Tv 'Sweeps': The Road To Ruin?

May 05, 1991|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,Sun Television Critic

If you want to know why network television is in such deep trouble these days, check out the programming at 9 tonight.

CBS offers Virginia Madsen and JoBeth Williams in "Victim of Love" (WBAL-TV, Channel 11). NBC has Loni Anderson in "White Hot: the Mysterious Murder of Thelma Todd" (WMAR-TV, Channel 2). ABC serves up Richard Chamberlain in a remake of "Night of the Hunter" (WJZ-TV, Channel 13). It is classic, blockbuster counterprogramming on this second weekend of the spring sweeps ratings period.

The problem is that the television landscape has changed so dramatically in the last decade that the classic of 1980 is today out of date: What used to be profitable, sure-draw entertainment is now too costly and less than compelling -- compared to the competition.

In February 1978, when the three broadcast networks went head to head with the first broadcast of "Gone With the Wind," "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest" and a made-for-TV movie about Elvis Presley, they split three ways an audience that consisted of more than 90percent of all television sets turned on that Sunday. It was TV's first triple-million-dollar counterprogramming showdown. And, even though everyone shelled out big bucks, there was enough audience -- and, consequently, advertising -- for everyone to make it back and then some.

Tonight, the three films will be fighting over a total audience of between 50 and 60 percent of TV sets in use. If that audience is split three ways, all three broadcast networks will lose money.

The difference? A handful of channels in 1979 became a smorgasbord of 40 or 50 channels during the 1980s with the phenomenal growth of cable and independent stations.

Can't the networks figure this out?

They know it's happening -- been happening for years now -- though they've been reluctant to admit how bad things have gotten for them.

"The days of such [counter]programming are over," Robert Iger, the president of ABC Entertainment, told TV critics earlier this year. He said head-to-head "kamikaze programming" no longer makes financial sense.

If we can believe him, the movies and miniseries this May are the last gasp of such programming, the end of a decade of "sweeps" excess. The networks simply cannot afford it any more, executives at all three networks say.

But network executives should be judged by what they do and not what they say. And what they are doing tonight is giving us more of the same-old, same-old, years after it was viable and months after they said it was history.

This is a time of great confusion at the networks. And tonight's films reflect that in content, too.

No matter which you watch, note the treatment of sex, for example. Titillation and sexual content has always been a big part of sweeps offerings. But the networks, which see themselves as mainstream, aren't sure how far they can go in trying to compete with cable.

"Victim of Love" suffers most from this indecision. The film wants to be about sexual obsession and it features an actress, Virginia Madsen, who made the screen smoke inHBO's "Long Gone." But this is network, not cable, and CBS is afraid to portray the objects of sexual obsession. The bedroom scenes are shot from the neck up. Cleavage is limited.

Compare this with the frank and stunning depictions of sex in Showtime's "Paris Trout," with Dennis Hopper and Barbara Hershey, and you'll have a sense of why adults are watching cable.

Here's a look at tonight's three films:

AH'Victim of Love'

Sexual problems aside, "Victim of Love" is also a victim of too little plot and too much plodding along. It almost dies under the weight of its three stars: Madsen, Williams and Pierce Brosnan, who have little to do and two hours not to do it in. A lot of the things that are often wrong with network movies are wrong with this clunker.

It is, for example, a knockoff of a box-office hit. Actually, severalAmong those that come to mind are "Suspicion," "North by Northwest" and "Fatal Attraction." There's a bit of each in this story about English professor Paul Tomlinson (Brosnan) who's still grieving for his deceased first wife when he meets psychologist Tess Palmer (Williams) at a party.

Tomlinson and Palmer are immediately attracted to each other; there's a great heat between them. We know this because we see other people on the dance floor stop to watch them. See what I mean about problems in communicating the concept of sexual attraction?

Palmer, meanwhile, is treating a patient (Madsen) who can't get the man she loves to commit to her, because he's still in love with his dead wife. Guess who the man is?

It gives nothing away to say that Palmer is confronted with two realities before long. Her patient says that she is having a relationship with Tomlinson, who, meanwhile, is telling Palmer he is true to her.

Whom should she believe? This goes on for two hours, about 90 minutes too long.

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