Family Matters FALL PREVIEW Networks play it safe, stay close to home this fall

September 12, 1993|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,Television Critic

In Hollywood, they're calling the new network TV season "the year of living cautiously."

After a year of taking risks in an attempt to win young viewers, the networks are back to playing it safe. And, in network TV, nothing is safer than the family sitcom, a staple since 1948, when the genre was introduced with "The Goldbergs."

Of the 36 new network shows, 17 are focused on the family and are virtually indistinguishable from each other.

In a remarkable exhibition of cookie-cutter TV, a dozen of the new shows feature a trio of children -- usually with a precocious youngest child getting the most camera time. Even Academy Award-winning actress Faye Dunaway finds herself playing second fiddle to three kids in a pilot for a CBS series, "It Had To Be You."

What's behind this wall-to-wall celebration of the family? Was it only a year ago that Dan Quayle was being mocked for criticizing "Murphy Brown" and network TV over the issue of family values? Should this development be read as the latest report from the front lines in the "cultural war" that Pat Buchanan talked about at last year's GOP convention?

To some extent, the new television season is about culture and values. But, when it comes to network TV, it's usually a matter of business before culture.

"Our research has shown us that the focus of Americans is, more than ever, on their families." said David F. Poltrack, senior vice president of planning and research for CBS.

"When critics condemn our programming as 'safe' and 'mainstream,' they clearly miss the point. If the writing quality is of good quality and the actors perform professionally, what is wrong with safe and mainstream?"

That's how network TV works: If research indicates viewers are interested in family, you get a new season full of family shows.

But network research and marketing is more sophisticated than just targeting a concept as huge as family. To get a real sense of the flavor of network television this year, it's also important to know what kind of family the networks are trying to reach most: the baby boomer family.

"Last year, all of our competitors continued to focus on younger viewers, most particularly those under 35," Poltrack said.

"We chose instead to concentrate on the important, middle-of-the-market, aging baby boomers. As the season progressed, it became increasingly obvious that ours was the most effective strategy.

"Advertising Age in its annual 'Television Buying and Planning' section reported what we had already been observing, . . . a dramatic swing by advertisers toward the adult 25-54 [years of age] demographic and away from the adult 18-34 and adult 18-49 targets."

So, this season it's baby boomers as parents. Boomers as mommy and daddy to the little ones. And boomers forced to become mommy and daddy to their elderly parents.

It's right there in the titles: "The Mommies," an NBC sitcom about boomer motherhood in suburbia; "Daddy Dearest," a Fox sitcom starring boomer angst-meister Richard Lewis as a single dad whose obnoxious father (Don Rickles) moves in with him.

The theme of the new season is also sounded by Harry Anderson, as columnist Dave Barry in "Dave's World," a new sitcom joining CBS' Monday-night boomer lineup.

"Someone has to be the grown-ups, and now it's our turn," Anderson says mournfully.

Repeated concern

Baby-boomer characters voice that kind of concern again and again this fall.

"Oh, my God, you're sounding just like your father," Denise Lerner (Pamela Reed) tells her husband Jonathan (Peter Scolari) in CBS' "Family Album," a sitcom that perhaps typifies this season more than any other.

The series features Reed and Scolari as a boomer couple who move back to Philadelphia to raise their three children so that Scolari's character, a doctor, can help his aging father with his practice. Baby boomers as mommy and daddy times two.

There are degrees to which the four networks pursue the grail of family viewing this fall.

CBS, which last year stuck to its baby-boomer guns while twentysomething shows were all the rage elsewhere, owns the franchise on family fare this year. Look for CBS to again finish first in ratings.

"Dave's World," "Family Album" and "It Had to Be You" will be joined by such shows as "Harts of the West," a comedy-drama about a dad moving his wife and three kids from the big city to a rundown dude ranch out West.

Mid-life crisis out West

While the modern-day West and the notion of frontier are important to this series starring Beau Bridges, it's really about mid-life crisis and family. Lloyd Bridges, Jeff's real-life dad, plays a leathery foreman at the ranch. Beau's character is father to both his kids and the old man.

The biggest shift this year is at NBC. Last-year, it was all twentysomething. This year, it's all baby boomer. But despite some solid baby-boomer fare, NBC will finish third. It got into the game too late to have a full menu of winning shows.

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