Plans to 'broadcast' while other networks 'narrowcast' to youth


September 13, 1992|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,Television Critic

Maybe he had heard the terms twentysomething, youthquake or baby busters once too often during the press conference. Whatever the reason, CBS Entertainment president Jeff Sagansky suddenly dropped the ambiguous language of network-speak and cut through the thickening fog of information overload and new-show hype with one answer that should help viewers make some sense of the 1992-'93 network TV season, which officially begins tonight.

"I don't think there's ever been a clearer time in broadcast history where there are clearly different strategies going on as to what networks are trying to appeal to," Sagansky said in response to yet another question about the hunt for the younger audience. "When you look at the other three networks, it must look like a parade of 22-year-old kids in Guess jeans.

"But we've decided to go in a different direction. We've decided what we are going to be is a broadcaster. . . . We're not going to be young. . . . We're going to try to be good."

The new fall season -- which will include the introduction of 35 weekly series as well as a year's worth of made-for-TV movies, mini-series and specials -- is mainly about age groups, especially the age group between 18 and 34, dubbed twentysomethings.

Much has been written about that groupsince the fall schedules were announced in May and 20 or so of the 35 new series were seen to feature characters in their 20s -- those "kids in Guess jeans" Sagansky was trying to put down. That mass of shows has since been tracked in the press like a offshore hurricane on a TV radar weather map.

But there are forces behind this storm of new shows, which have not been much discussed.

They include business decisions by network brass that have led to the glut of twentysomething shows. NBC's decision to try to imitate Fox, which owns the youth market, for example, could result in big losses at NBC and a first-ever finish for Fox ahead of the peacock network in overall ratings. CBS, the first-place network, meanwhile, has decided to be the lone network playing primarily to middle-aged and older viewers.

Forces driving this TV season also include lifestyle shifts, which have already resulted in making Television '92-'93 a watershed year for cultural change. Just as baby boomers first started seeing their culture appear on television in the 1960s with such shows as "Shindig" and "Hullabaloo," the long-suppressed popular culture of viewers in their 20s is finally being mainstreamed on the traditional networks.

The result is a "cultural war" far more real than the one Pat Buchanan talked about at the GOP Convention last month. This one is between baby-boomer opinion leaders, who are not ready to see their Motown-Woodstock-Vietnam popular culture and generational concerns given less prominence in prime time, and the twentysomethings, who have the inevitability of advertiser appeal on their side. Even if most of the twentysomething shows this year fail, there is sure to be another crop next year and the year after, as networks try to reach the viewers they need if they are to have any kind of future.

It might be hard to imagine more kinds of twentysomething shows than there are this year. There is the ensemble drama defined by "Melrose Place," which has already established itself as a hit. Other ensemble dramas include "The Heights" (working-class rock musicians) on Fox, "Going to Extremes" (medical students) on ABC, "The Round Table" (young professionals in Georgetown) on NBC, and "Class of '96" (college students) on Fox.

Other new series starring characters in their 20s include: Malcolm-Jamal Warner as a graduate student and youth counselor in NBC's "Here and Now," Morris Chestnut as a recent college grad hired to run a nightclub in NBC's "Out All Night," Martin Lawrence as a Detroit talk-show host in "Martin" on Fox, Roger Kabler as a Detroit disc jockey in "Rhythm & Blues" on NBC, Robin Givens and Pamela Gidley as homicide detectives in "Angel Street" on CBS, Corey Parker as a recent college grad working in a cookie company on Fox's "Flying Blind," Mark Curry as a teacher in "Hangin' With Mr. Cooper," and Fisher Stevens as an assembly line worker who wins the lottery and moves to Key West in "Key West" on Fox.

Virtually every other new show on the schedule -- including the Golden Girls' new "Golden Palace" and Bob Newhart's "Bob" -- has a strong youth element to it.

Behind the move to all that youth is the success of Fox and the nature of TV advertising, say authorities like David Robinson, vice president and group media director for W.B. Doner & Co. in Baltimore.

"I think the reason for the shift is Fox," Robinson said. "The success of Fox has really shaken up the three traditional networks."

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