Quality loses to cheap tricks

Assessment: None of us are winners in the numbers game that led NBC to cancel `Homicide.'

May 15, 1999|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,SUN TELEVISION CRITIC

This week, just before confirming the cancellation of its critically acclaimed drama "Homicide: Life on the Street," NBC announced that it was ordering 13 new episodes of "World's Most Amazing Videos" for next season.

Almost everything you need to know about the network economics responsible for the demise of "Homicide" is found in the relationship between those two events. In some ways, it's as simple as this: "Homicide" is expensive and "World's Most Amazing Videos" is cheap. And cheap is getting more and more important than quality to network television these days.

So what if "World's Most Amazing Videos," which is made by the man who brought us "When Good Pets Go Bad," features such great moments as an airplane mechanic being sucked into a jet engine? So what if it is deplorable programming? The networks say they can't afford quality drama any more.

As Stu Bloomberg, the chairman of ABC Entertainment, puts it, "When you have a schedule that has very strong dramas that are expensive, you need to balance that out with reality programming that doesn't cost that much. That's how we are trying to make the economic model work."

Scott Sassa, president of NBC West Coast and one of the men who pulled the plug on "Homicide," said much the same thing in defending his network's decision this spring to start airing such specials as "The Truth About UFOs." In the new economic environment of increased competition, you have to find less costly ways to program, and "clearly reality specials are doing well," he said.

Not to oversimplify. It's not a straight swap: "World's Most Amazing Videos" for "Homicide." You probably won't see videotape of animals being injured, violent car crashes and natural disasters when you tune to NBC Friday nights at 10 next fall.

When NBC announces its new schedule Monday in New York, the time slot "Homicide" held since 1995 will probably be taken over by another drama. Three new ones are said to have made the schedule -- one each from Dick Wolf of "Law & Order," John Wells of "ER" and Aaron Sorkin of "Sports Night." Respectively, they deal with a police sex crimes unit, cops and medical workers, and people working in the west wing of the White House.

But whichever replaces "Homicide" it will be cheaper. Tom Fontana, the Emmy-award-winning producer of "Homicide," said that NBC told him it was not canceling the series for creative reasons. The network was satisfied with the show in that regard.

But Fontana said the network told him it found a way to program the time period next fall for $200,000 less per hour than it was paying for "Homicide." Multiply that by 22 weeks, and you have $4.4 million, which was deemed too much to pay for a critically acclaimed, socially relevant, racially enlightened series that finishes third in its time period behind the newsmagazine "20/20" on ABC and the bone head "Nash Bridges" on CBS.

Fontana said NBC told him there were "other factors involved." But they were all economic, "such as the number of episodes we had produced [122] and whether it would be cost effective, in terms of potential sales in syndication, to make more," Fontana said.

As Fontana's partner, Barry Levinson, put it, "In the end, it all comes down to numbers."

However, there are others numbers to count besides ratings figures and advertising dollars. If you count hours next fall, you will find fewer hours of quality drama and more hours of so-called "reality" specials featuring simulated UFO abductions, dangerous car chases, horrible accidents and animal abuse.

Even if series like "Homicide" aren't directly replaced by reality specials, the ordering of more shows for series like "World's Most Amazing Videos" this spring means the networks are planning to use more of them to pre-empt lower-rated dramas next year during key ratings periods. The benefits of such a strategy are two-fold: You order fewer dramas, which keeps down costs of production, and you often artificially inflate ratings with the sensationalistic specials.

It's a win-win strategy to the network way of thinking. But it's lose-lose for the audience, which is now offered more versions of "Worlds Most Amazing Videos" and fewer chances to see the likes of a "Homicide: Life on the Street."

Pub Date: 5/15/99

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