The state of "prime time": Going, going, gone!
* In tough economic times, with audiences shrinking, the networks are going the discount route in many time slots with reality shows that are much cheaper to produce than an "L.A. Law" or a "Cosby Show."
* Speaking of which, many long-running entertainment shows like "Cosby" are going off the air soon or, even worse, plummeting in quality at slalom speed.
* And, the most helpless new feeling of all for programmers: No matter the fare, lifestyles are changing. Suddenly, many viewers are tuning out and going to bed earlier.
What's a network to do? Well, how about this: Look to other parts of the TV day for inspiration. Early morning, Saturday morning, late afternoon or late night.
It's astonishing that the networks, those lumbering behemoths, have been so slow to look at themselves and adapt their late-night successes to prime time. Why did it take upstart Fox to depart from the traditional prime-time variety show format with the bold and satirical "In Living Color," after NBC had a long-running success with the similarly styled "Saturday Night Live?"
Rather than fail with '60s-style variety shows starring Carol Burnett or country singers, why doesn't a savvy programmer let Dave Letterman or some other comic move the genre into prime time and into the '90s?
Prime time offers some excellent series, programs as diverse as "60 Minutes," "Murphy Brown," "Northern Exposure," "Seinfeld," "The Simpsons" and "Law & Order." Network TV has much to recommend it these days. But there is no denying that big patches of uninspired shows clog the schedule, especially on Fridays and Saturdays.
Here's a prescription to get TV well. But first, a diagnosis:
1. Why isn't there more quality TV?
The TV audience got savvy long ago -- savvier than network programmers seem to realize -- in part because of more audacious late-night shows and the far more adventurous fare on cable.
Still, the networks keep stumbling along, trying to transform tired family sitcoms and bland but expensive dramas into the increasingly rare megahit. Too often, their greater concern appears to be to avoid offending viewers and advertisers.
The fall season is a costly and foolhardy process. Of 28 shows introduced last fall, ABC's "Home Improvement" is the only legitimate hit. No wonder the three major networks' prime-time share dropped from 90 percent in 1979 to 63 percent last season.
The TV season, with its focus on copycat success, yields more formula shows. For every "Cheers," "Wonder Years" or "L.A. Law," there are six or seven duds.
2. Why do the schedules look so similar, night after night?
Prime time these days consists mainly of sitcoms, dramas, newsmagazines and reality-based shows. The schedule is dictated by economics.
Because half-hour sitcoms play more easily in syndicated reruns, we were swamped with 48 of them in the fall. Sitcoms cost the networks roughly $500,000 per episode. There are expensive, long-running exceptions. Because of their veteran casts of high-paid stars, "Cheers" costs about $2.85 million per episode, according to the showbiz trade bible Variety, and "The Cosby Show," which ends its run this spring, goes for $2 million per week.
Hourlong dramas run about $1 million per episode, but networks can program newsmagazines for roughly half that amount. The four networks have 22 one-hour dramas ("L.A. Law," "Northern Exposure," etc.), and 12 hours of reality and news -- everything from "20/20" to "America's Funniest Home Videos."
At CBS, for instance, "Jake and the Fatman" costs $1.1 million a week while "48 Hours" goes for $500,000. The top-rated show in all of TV, "60 Minutes," runs $600,000 per episode.
Because news-reality shows are so economical for the networks, look for that genre to expand. CBS has extended "Street Stories" through the summer, and NBC will debut "Dateline NBC," co-anchored by Jane Pauley and "20/20" alum Stone Phillips, at the end of the month. ABC News is developing a new show to battle "60 Minutes" on Sunday nights in the fall.
The upshot: Prime time is looking more like true-life misery than inspired or escapist entertainment.
3. Why are so many viewers going to bed?
That's an easy one: They're tired. No matter what the networks offer, come 10 p.m., the aging baby boomer audience just wants to roll over.
So how to improve prime time? Look to late night. You'll remember that in the beginning, "Saturday Night Live" called its ensemble the Not Ready for Prime Time Players. Now, they're ready.
Late-night staples like "Nightline" and Letterman have been baby-boomer favorites ever since a whole generation got hooked in college. But many of us aging yups won't -- or can't -- stay up to see them today. Neither do we have time for later viewing, so we hesitate to tape.
Why not a "Saturday Night Live"-style variety show at 9:30 on a weeknight? NBC once had Lorne Michaels take a shot at a hip prime-time variety show with 1984's ill-fated "The New Show." But only one crack? It's time to try again. In an election year, the prime-time audience might appreciate the topical humor of "Weekend Update."