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TV Networks: They're Bad, They're Nationwide

Last month, CBS entertainment boss Leslie Moonves told the New York Times that "three of four networks... probably aren't going to make any money next season, and [profits for] NBC... will probably be down to $100 million [from $500 million]. It's all ugly." He added, "How do you build for the future audience? I don't know. If I was a young [programming] executive, I don't know if I would come into the [broadcast] network business."

How bleak is the outlook? According to a recent piece in Advertising Age, a decade ago better than forty percent of prime time series on ABC, CBS, and NBC drew a rating of 10 or better among adults aged 25-54. That's to say that at least ten percent of persons in that age group were watching each of those programs. Today, fewer than one in ten shows on those webs, plus Fox, generates those numbers.

For years, the broadcast networks have been wailing and gnashing their teeth over their shrinking audience share, but, as Moonves indicated, they still don't how to stop it. In the fall of 1997, the networks unveiled 38 new shows - 38 chances to stem, or even turn, the Nielsen tide. Of those, only seven drew enough of a following to return this autumn.

Oh, there are Ideas floating around, but coming as they do from such a hype-oriented business, if you suspect they're less impressive than they appear, you're right. An Entertainment Weekly article noted that "the... biggest sensations on the tube this [past] season," such as Fox's "Ally McBeal" and WB's "Dawson's Creek," "push[ed] the envelope," and suggested that edginess may be at least a partial cure for what ails prime time.

But "sensation" is not synonymous with "hit." A program favored by critics can receive reams of press coverage without being tremendously popular. Of 157 rated shows this past season, "Ally McBeal" wound up tied for 59th - a respectable performance for a first-year entry, but no more than that. Meanwhile, "Dawson's Creek" finished 121st, far behind such perceived Nielsen disasters as CBS's "The Closer" and NBC's "Jenny."

Moreover, even if envelope-pushing works in the short term, it's a recipe for long-term failure. The coming-out episode of "Ellen," endlessly hyped by the press, drew a huge audience, but soon the lesbian novelty was gone and so were millions of viewers. The Catholic-baiting "Nothing Sacred," also heavily promoted, did OK in its premiere, but fell apart a week later and ended up at the bottom of the heap before its cancellation. So let's see how the sexually obsessed "Ally" and "Dawson's" fare two or three years down the road - if they're still around.

The networks' problem isn't too much blandness, it's too much garbage. Many prime time series are morally repugnant; most are also intellectually offensive. And the industry seems inclined to continue chasing dumb viewers at the expense of quality. Case in point: The superb "Frasier" was a hit right out of the gate in 1993, yet no network tried to emulate this success the following year. But when the sophomoric "Friends" was the toast of '94-'95, the webs fell over each other to produce even-more-inane "Friends" copies - all of which flopped.

Bottom line: There is a hunger for high-quality programs, as the presence in the Nielsen Top Ten of "ER," "Touched By an Angel," and "Home Improvement" indicates. The public may settle for somewhat less, but if they're given a great deal less, they'll simply turn their sets off. And that's what has happened.

Remember Moonves' comment that a future young television exec might not want to work at a broadcast network? He went on to imply that cable's Comedy Central, infamous for the vulgar "South Park," would be a better place for such an up-and-comer. In February, Moonves said he'd have no problem airing "South Park" on CBS.

It's not surprising that someone who endorses such filth would shun its antithesis. I refer to Moonves' cancellation of "Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman," which blazed the wholesome-drama trail that "Touched By an Angel" followed. "Dr. Quinn" was a bona fide hit for several years. This past season, it continued to win its time slot and ended up tied for 51st in the ratings - ahead of the "sensation" "Ally McBeal" - but was dumped nonetheless.

Executives like Moonves grumble about the talent shortage in the television industry, then ax a program like "Dr. Quinn," which offers something that is increasingly in short supply in Tinseltown: quality. Sadly, it's not that Moonves and Co. don't understand this reality. Rather, they simply don't want to accept it. Then again, the waning of first-rate viewing options might spur some to blow the dust off those books on the family-room shelf and revisit that old standby, literature.