More competition, less money are making the networks pull plug on popular programs

GOING, GOING, GONE

February 09, 1992|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,Television Critic

What's this about Marty and Hannah and "Anything But Love" going away -- maybe forever? Has anyone seen Forrest Bedford and "I'll Fly Away" lately? Where's Arlo Weed and the rest of the "Flesh 'n' Blood" Baltimore gang anyway?

It's the halfway point of the TV season. And just as millions of viewers have become attached to one or another of the 26 new weekly series that debuted this fall, or grew even fonder of old-time favorites, many of the shows have mysteriously disappeared.

Some of the shows are said by the networks to be in that murky never-never land called "hiatus." What does that mean? Will we ever see those shows again? What's the status of my favorite show? If it's still on, will it stay on? Why do the networks jerk us around this way?

The answers to some of those questions are harder to come by than you might imagine. The big answer is that the networks are behaving so strangely because of shrinking audience shares, less money to spend on programs and an exponential increase in competition from cable and independents.

These phenomena have been going on for more than a decade, but it took about half that time for the message to get through all the sand the network executives had their heads buried in. Once they got the message,the strangeness with our favorite programs began in earnest. This year it is worse than ever.

But you already know that.

You also know that while volumes have been written about the tremendous impact TV coverage of such events as the Kennedy assassination or the Challenger explosion have had on the hearts and minds of viewers, it is the weekly series and characters like Mary Richards or Cliff Huxtable that we form our deepest emotional attachments to in front of the small screen. Jim Dasinger, a Baltimore psychologist in private practice, believes that some viewers actually go through a kind of "mourning" when their favorite character suddenly disappears from the tube.

You also probably know that even if you don't bond that deeply with TV characters, you can still get a little rattled when you sit down at, say, 9:30 Friday night and Cousin Balki and the "Perfect Strangers" crew suddenly aren't there after years of being there. Maybe it was nothing more than a half-hour of pleasant diversion or escape. But its disappearance is now yet another instance in your life of not having control over something you once could count on.

With all of that in mind, we set out to work up a mid-season score card of sorts to bring viewers up to speed on some of their favorite shows. It isn't complete, because, in some cases, the networks simply do not want you to know your favorite show has already been cancelled. The main reason is dollars and cents. Here's the way it works.

Most prime-time series are not owned by networks, like ABC, NBC, CBS and Fox. Production companies own the shows. When you read that a network "ordered" such-and-such many new episodes of a show, what that means is that the network agreed to pay such-and-such many dollars in licensing fees for the rights to air each of those episodes twice.

So, let's say a network ordered 13 episodes of a show. After the fifth show, though, the research and ratings were so bad that the network knew the show was a goner. But it has already paid for eight more episodes.

What to do? You can simply dump the shows and eat the loss. Or you can just keep airing the show in its regular time period. But during sweeps months when competition is keenest, such a low-rated show could drag down the entire night and compound your losses. Or you can put the show on the shelf during sweeps months, like February and May, and try to burn off the leftover episodes in March and April. But for those burn-off episodes to get the most viewers and advertising bucks, you can't let viewers know it's a cancelled show. So, when you pull it from the schedule, you say it's going on hiatus.

That one strategy makes for terrible complications in trying to get straight answers from the networks.

For example, CBS says "The Trials of Rosie O'Neill" is on hiatus and will be back, perhaps, as early as next month. But that's because CBS has five more episodes to get rid of. The executive producer, Barney Rosenzweig, says that he has laid off the crew, shut down production and that no more episodes are going to be made. Sharon Gless, the star, is off making a movie. Even Rosenzweig says that's a cancelled series, folks.

Series in this "hiatus" category include: "Young Riders," "The Torkelsons," "Teech," "Royal Family," "Sibs," "Pros and Cons," Palace Guard," "P.S. I Luv You," "Erie, Indiana," "Man of The People," "Pacific Station" and "Flesh 'n' Blood."

What exactly does that mean? In short, you may see them back on for a few episodes this spring between February and May sweeps, but don't get attached. They are dead meat.

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