Network TV, its wires crossed by the cable threat, is collapsing under the weight of clueless programming. Thank heavens for the old reliables.

IN THE DARK

December 05, 1998|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,SUN TELEVISION CRITIC

Last year at this time, I looked out over a TV landscape that included "The Tony Danza Show" and said something incredibly stupid: "Network television couldn't get any worse."

One "Secret Diary of Desmond Pfeiffer" later, I admit how horribly wrong I was: The collapse continues.

As we approach the halfway point of the network season, there is an overwhelming urge to trash everything. But, as usual, truth lies somewhere in the middle.

As you grind your teeth over "Encore! Encore!" or "Living in Captivity," remember "The Temptations" or recent, brilliant episodes of "ER" and "NYPD Blue." They are all representative in one way or another of the great change and larger forces shaping network television these days -- making quality programming harder, but not impossible, to find.

"I have two thoughts about the new television season, and they are so opposed to each other as to almost seem contradictory," Robert J. Thompson, director of the Center for the Study of Popular Television at Syracuse University, said in an interview this week.

"On the one hand, it is an extraordinarily dismal, arid season that begs the question: How much longer can network TV go without a new idea? But, on the other hand, what we have is still so much better than anything that was on network TV prior to 1981."

Thompson, the author of "Television's Second Golden Age: From 'Hill Street Blues' to 'ER,' " lists a number of current series, urging a comparison of them with anything that came before the debut of "Hill Street Blues" in 1981. He cites "The Practice," "Ally McBeal," "NYPD Blue," "Law & Order," "Homicide" and "Frasier."

"Sure, 'NYPD Blue' might be getting a little long in the tooth, but it's still a lot better than 'T.J. Hooker,' isn't it?" he asks rhetorically.

Most of the old series are doing OK. It is the new ones that are such a big part of what's wrong with the TV season. Or, should I say, "were a big part," since so many of them have already been shipped off to the never-never land of hiatus or outright cancellation. Remember "The Brian Benben Show," "Vengeance Unlimited," "Costello" or "Living in Captivity"?

NBC had some of the worst bombs, with Bo Derek in "Wind on Water" and "Encore! Encore!", which gets the award for the worst waste of major talent -- Nathan Lane and Joan Plowright. After years of ratings leadership and generally good quality series, NBC is unraveling. One of its worst trouble spots is Tuesday nights.

NBC programmers said "Mad About You" could hold the fort on Tuesdays after "Frasier" was sent off to save Thursdays in a scary, post-Seinfeld, prime-time world. They bet $73 million on it -- the price they are paying for the series, including $1 million an episode each for Paul Reiser and Helen Hunt.

Bad bet. The ratings for "Mad About You" are down 37 percent from last year. At best, it finishes third in its time period behind "JAG" on CBS and "Home Improvement" on ABC. Last year at this time, it ranked 15th out of 140 or so prime-time series. This year, it has fallen to 55th. Viewers, who felt at home on NBC on Tuesday nights, are feeling lost this fall.

All of this contributed to the departure last month of Warren Littlefield as president of NBC Entertainment. But Fox and CBS also have new programming executives since September. Thirty-five-year-old Jamie Tarses, of ABC, is now dean of network programmers. You remember Tarses; she was supposed to have been fired for ABC's disastrous prime-time schedule last year.

The turnover and confusion at the top of the network programming ladder are directly reflected in what we are seeing on our TV screens. They are symptoms of huge problems faced by the industry.

Network television finds itself at a crossroads. The combined average audience share for the six networks is down 14 percent from last year at this time. Audience erosion has reached the point at which networks have to start thinking more like cable channels. If they want to remain profitable, they need distinctive brand identity and more tightly focused target audiences. It is no accident that both Fox and NBC hired cable executives to head their programming departments.

But such change does not happen successfully overnight.

Good and bad

One of the most sought-after target audiences this fall is that of African-American viewers -- a fact that accounts for some of the worst and best of what we have seen in recent months. UPN actually thought black viewers would like "The Secret Diary of Desmond Pfeiffer," a sitcom about a black valet to President Lincoln. Fox, too, thought it had a winner with black audiences with "Living in Captivity," from producer Diane English.

Both were quickly canceled. Not only did black viewers instantly tune out; in the case of "Pfeiffer," they picketed UPN over its treatment of slavery as a laughing matter.

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