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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

But then the good news: NBC's desire to lure black viewers from HBO and Showtime with better movies resulted in "The Temptations" miniseries last month, about the legendary Motown singing group. CBS came up with a quality miniseries, "Mama Flora's Family," featuring Cicely Tyson and Queen Latifah. ABC has also had some success with "The Hughleys," a sitcom about a black family in a white suburb from executive producer Chris Rock.

In general, made-for-TV movies have been better this fall as the networks battle cable for viewers. CBS' "Saint Maybe" and ABC's remake of "Rear Window" with Christopher Reeve are two good examples in recent weeks. You can expect that trend to continue throughout the season.

But, again, there have been missteps. NBC, thinking its history of quality would help attract PBS viewers as well as those getting their movies on cable, dropped women-in-jeopardy flicks for such literary fare as "Crime and Punishment." The ratings were so bad for "Crime and Punishment" that an updated version of "The Tempest," with Peter Fonda, was quietly rescheduled out of November "sweeps" to Dec. 13.

The most successfully branded of all the networks is the WB, with its emphasis on youth drama. It is the only network to show an increase in audience share from last year at this time -- up 29 percent. "Felicity," the saga of a young woman's first year at college, is holding the Tuesday-night audience delivered by its lead-in, "Buffy the Vampire Slayer." And both are hits with the critics -- even though neither finished higher than 92nd out of 120 series last week.

PBS made a wise brand-identity move, too, that has resulted in better viewing. Trying to set itself in sharp counterpoint to the slick, superficiality of network newsmagazines, PBS has aired several of its finest documentaries in years -- David Sutherland's "The Farmer's Wife," Orlando Bagwell's "Africans in America" and "Frank Lloyd Wright," by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick.

"The Farmer's Wife," an incredibly intimate look at a Nebraska couple's battle to save their farm, alone is almost enough to redeem television from all the awful pilots the commercial networks threw against the wall this fall with no idea of what would stick.

Those that look as if they will stick are: "Jesse" and "Will and Grace" on NBC, "That '70s Show" on Fox, "Sports Night" and "The Hughleys" on ABC, "Felicity" and "Charmed" on the WB, and "The King of Queens," "Martial Law" and "L.A. Doctors" on CBS.

Of those, only "Martial Law," an extremely violent drama starring Sammo Hung as a Hong Kong supercop assigned to the LAPD, wins its time period. It is the highest-rated new drama of the season -- a fact that depresses me tremendously. It also makes me think Thompson is right when he says we are past the second golden age of television drama and are now living off the remains of great series like "ER," "NYPD Blue" and "Law & Order," while their successors are nowhere to be seen.

But the most depressing trend of the season so far has been the success of cheap "reality" specials, especially from Fox, like "Busted On the Job III," which featured such splendid moments as a secretary fouling -- that's the only word I can use in a family newspaper -- the office of her boss. It finished 12th out of 120 shows during the all-important last week of November sweeps, ahead of "Law & Order," "The X-Files" and "Ally McBeal," to name a few slightly higher-caliber offerings.

The week before, Fox had another big ratings winner with the deplorable "When Good Pets Go Bad." It finished 16th, ahead of "The Drew Carey Show," "Everybody Loves Raymond" and "Dharma and Greg."

We will be seeing more low-rent reality specials this year. In such uncertain times, they are impossible to resist by network programmers. There is almost no risk in that they are cheap to produce. Meanwhile, they offer the promise of an audience large enough to land you in the Nielsen Top 20.

While I'm no longer foolish enough to say that network television can't get any worse, such shows as "Desmond Pfeiffer" and "Living in Captivity" make me think and pray it can't.

But I fear somewhere in Hollywood, a beast is slumping off to the back lot of Fox to give birth to a reality special titled "Busted on the Job by Good Pets Who Have Gone Bad During the World's Wildest Police Chases and Life's Most Embarrassing Moments with America's Dumbest Criminals and Dick Clark."

Pub Date: 12/05/98

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