Quality time

With sweeps under way and reality TV devouring prime time, Sunday night becomes one chance to gobble the good stuff.

February 01, 2003|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,SUN TELEVISION CRITIC

It is hard to imagine one night offering more big-budget, traditional, quality drama competing head-to-head than the network and cable lineup tomorrow.

Starting at 8, Showtime serves up Whoopi Goldberg and Danny Glover in an original made-for-cable movie, Good Fences, that wickedly explores social class, upward mobility and race in a posh Connecticut town.

At 9, CBS offers Glenn Close in Brush With Fate, a Hallmark Hall of Fame version of the Oprah Winfrey Book Club best-selling novel, Girl in Hyacinth Blue. PBS counters with Part 1 of Foyle's War, an outstanding Masterpiece Theatre miniseries about a police inspector (Michael Kitchen) on England's homefront at the start of World War II.

Then at 10, it's the premiere of two of the most talked-about new series of the season: Kingpin, NBC's drama about Mexican drug trafficking from creator David Mills, and ABC's remake of the father of all cop dramas, Dragnet, from Dick Wolf.

And just to complicate viewing choices a little more, HBO airs the pilot of The Sopranos at 8 to begin a programming cycle that will include all four seasons of television's finest series.

The easy explanation for the abundance: Tomorrow is the first Sunday of the February "sweeps" ratings period. Sweeps are a time when audiences are measured and the results used to determine advertising rates for the next few months. Since Sunday has been one of the nights of heaviest viewing since the dawn of sustained prime-time programming in the late 1940s, networks have traditionally offered some of their most high-visibility programming on that night.

But tomorrow night's lineup is unusual even by those standards, and there is, in fact, a far more powerful force at play: reality TV, the force that seems to be driving everything on television in 2003.

Based on the tremendous success of programs like Fox's American Idol and ABC's The Bachelor last summer, the networks settled on one dominant theme for their midseason lineups: reality, reality and more reality. With through-the-roof ratings for the new American Idol and Joe Millionaire the past few weeks, the networks are now in a frenzy to create and program more of the same.

One of the results is that there are already fewer places on the schedule for one-hour dramas, miniseries and made-for-TV movies - television's most expensive genres. The networks have a logjam of programs like the ones that will air tomorrow night and almost nowhere to put them. Sunday - a night favored by older, better-educated, upscale viewers attracted by what mostly older (read: baby boomer) critics have come to call "quality drama" - has become the designated area for such programs.

Call it a safe haven or call it a ghetto, baby-boomer viewers are going to find out what it feels like to have their tastes marginalized by television in coming months. The prime-time landscape being mapped out these nights is looking more and more like a brave, new world for American entertainment television - one in which reality rules and the longtime staples of the half-hour sitcom and hour-long drama that formed the template of prime-time programming for 50 years take a back seat or, at least, learn to share.

As Les Moonves, the president of CBS Television, put it last week, "The world [of prime-time programming] as we know it is over."

Network programmers always get carried away with the latest trend, especially when it involves programs that are cheaper to produce and which are winning bigger audiences than more expensive programs. Remember when newsmagazines, which could be made for 25 percent of the cost of prime-time drama, started drawing larger audiences than some of the dramas in the early 1990s?

One could read the history of prime-time network television as nothing but the waxing and waning of fads and cycles, whether it be the Western, quiz shows or variety programs. A naysayer could look at the major decline of interest in MTV's The Osbournes in the space of just one year, for example, and predict a very short reign for reality TV.

Short term, there is major change taking place - no doubt about it. As predicted in these pages at the start of 2003, this is going to be the year of reality TV; the floodgates have not yet even opened all the way.

Though it is too early to predict long-term sea change, with reality TV totally reconfiguring prime-time television as we've known it, just to be safe, fans of traditional quality drama might want to keep their Sunday nights open.

For a look at the truths buried in the idiocy of "American Idol," see David Zurawik's article in Sunday's Arts & Society section.

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