Last week in Los Angeles, I watched a parade of executives try to explain what's happening to broadcast television.
Some of them sounded desperate. Others covered their confusion with clever quips.
The truth is, nobody has a clear fix on what kind of programs the networks should be giving us.
Even we don't know what we want.
More sex? We say we don't want it, but we watch it anyway.
Better drama? Yes, but when we get it, we change channels.
More experiments, more creativity? Yeah, sure. But give us our "Columbo," too.
One ABC executive, trying in vain to get a handle on the problem, even suggested that it was the public's fault that the networks' fall lineups had flopped.
After all, he noted, 40 percent of the viewers who watch the premiere of a new series turn it off after just 10 minutes. What's a network to do?
I sympathize with ABC, CBS and NBC, which were once known as the Big Three but which now seem more like the Old Three.
For starters, I suggest that the Old Three accept two truths about us, their New Audience.
Truth No. 1: Television isn't the be-all, end-all of most people's lives.
Sure, we turn it on and leave it on, often for hours. But we're not serious about it. Jobs, families, health -- those are serious subjects. TV is just entertainment. So don't ask us, or expect us, to give more than a passing thought to what you do, or why you do it.
That means: Don't move series haphazardly once they're on the air. And understand that it might take us longer than a couple of weeks -- longer than a couple of months even -- to sample all the new shows. Our lives are as fragmented as the TV business. And although we enjoy TV habits -- like watching "Cheers" and "L.A. Law" on Thursday nights -- it's taking us longer and longer to establish them.
Truth No. 2: TV viewers are sophisticated and smart. Smarter, in fact, than some TV executives.
One of the funniest moments in a recent meeting between TV executives and TV critics came when CBS' program chief, Jeff Sagansky, fielded questions about "Palace Guard," a particularly stupid series.
One critic was especially blunt.
"It seemed like people knew right away [that the show was a dud]," he said. "It seemed like most of the critics knew right away. So why don't you guys know when you put these things on?"
Sagansky responded with a joke. But the question was a valid one. Why would a battalion of network executives say yes to a program that neither they nor their friends would be caught dead watching?
That means: Always respect the public's intelligence. Even those of us who enjoy high-brow TV crave escapist entertainment -- but only if it's written, acted and produced well.
Escapist isn't synonymous with tawdry or ridiculous. And the fact that viewers decide in just 10 minutes whether a show is worth watching means that we're smart enough to know what's good and what's bad.