More TV, but less quality and fun

September 15, 2002|By Michael Hill | Michael Hill,SUN STAFF

Gather round, children, and let me tell you a story of yesteryear. It used to be that when it came time to head back to school, when the air took on the crispness of waning summer, when the first leaves fell from the trees, not only was it time for the Orioles to march into post-season play, and for the Colts to take the field with the same quarterback they had last year, it was also time for the new television season.

Oh, yes, I know, the networks still have new shows and they still put many of them on in September, but back then, it was a real event. People knew which week NBC, CBS and ABC had picked for their premieres. The new shows were discussed at school, at work, at playgrounds and water coolers. The first episodes were watched, examined and dissected.

Back then, the network entertainment chiefs - people like Brandon Tartikoff and Fred Silverman - were household names, bandied about like Bill Gates and Jeff Bezos are today. Those programmers were the country's entertainment moguls - gone today just like their predecessors, the movie studio chiefs of the pre-television era.

The network programmers of a few decades ago could really say that they were out to entertain the entire country. It was a lucky household back then that had two television sets. And that's all they were, televisions. They weren't home entertainment centers that can bring in the Japanese Weather Channel one minute and the next play your 'N Sync DVD with the sound blasting through 36 Surround Sound speakers, chandelier rattling from the thump of the subwoofer.

No, then everyone gathered around the family set and listened through a little speaker on its side. We even had to get up and walk over to the TV to change channels. No, really, it's true! I'm not making that up.

On any given night, perhaps two-thirds of the country was watching the three networks. A handful was watching PBS and local independent stations that showed old movies and reruns. Any show that a network put on was expected to attract close to a third of those who had their sets turned on. That means that a mediocre show was getting close to one-fifth of all the people in the country to watch it. So it was not hubris that caused those programmers to see themselves as out to entertain the country. It was survival. If they didn't put on shows that had the ability to appeal to virtually everyone in the country, they did not keep their jobs.

It wasn't easy making such shows. Did you know that mega movie star Tom Hanks flopped in prime time when he joined Peter Scolari to dress in drag on Bosom Buddies? Michael Keaton and Jim Belushi didn't make it either in a sitcom called Working Stiffs. But when it worked, it had a real impact on the county.

So while one generation spent Sunday nights watching plates spin on The Ed Sullivan Show and hearing Lorne Green dispense fatherly advice on Bonanza, the next laughed with painful recognition at Archie Bunker's clan on All in the Family. We looked forward to their new episodes each fall and to seeing what their new brethren were like, learning what an alien looked like on Mork and Mindy - turns out he looked a lot like Robin Williams -- and finding a group of friends around a Boston bar on Cheers.

Today, the most buzz of the new TV season is about the return of The Sopranos, the crime family soap opera on HBO. That premium cable channel is available in only about 13 million homes in the country. So, while The Sopranos might be entertaining a small elite of television watchers - and drawing raves from them - it is sort of like a well-reviewed art house movie compared to the network hits of the past.

The networks still reach about all the homes in the country, but they have given up any pretense of trying to entertain them all. Any program that manages to attract 10 percent of the country is now a huge hit and has pundits pondering what it says about our culture. But getting that 10 percent is a different skill than getting 20 percent or 30 percent.

Want to get some big numbers? Write a show for older people - Touched by an Angel and Providence come to mind. They were considered surprise hits, but it was really a no-brainer. Both appealed to the older audience that watches more network TV and is less likely to be distracted by video games and MTV. One problem - advertisers have decided they don't want to pay for that audience. There are only so many Depends and Vioxx spots out there. So they get you numbers but no money.

For that you have to go for the younger audience, the 18-to-30 types. To get them you just fill the show with lots of gorgeous people in tight clothes and stupid sex jokes. Don't worry about double entendres, just say it! Anyone offended can go watch The Learning Channel.

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