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1990 TV SEASON: INNOVATION WAS IN, BUT VIEWERS TUNED OUT

THE BALTIMORE SUN

"Tried and true equals dead and buried."

--NBC's Brandon Tartikoff,

Summer 1990

They gave us "Cop Rock." But we wanted "Matlock."

They gave us "Hull High," but we said goodbye and hugged "Hunter" to our Nielsen bosoms like it was a hit show. Angela Lansbury was showing up on fewer and fewer episodes of "Murder, She Wrote," but more and more of us tuned in each week for our weekly fix of the known and predictable in Cabot Cove -- a sweet cup of Sunday-night tea. Meanwhile, almost nobody wanted to spend any time in Evening Shade, Ark.

"We were part of a bold experiment this fall aimed at changing lifestyles," says Andrew Susskind, the president of Imagine Television, Ron Howard's production company. "But, maybe, it turns out that those lifestyles or patterns were too entrenched to change."

Susskind was talking specifically about the failure of the networks' plan this year to bring young and affluent viewers back to Saturday night with more innovative programming -- such as NBC's "Parenthood" (which Imagine produces) and ABC's "Twin Peaks" and "China Beach."

But he was also talking about a larger storyline for Television 1990: The broadcast networks' overall blitz of bold programming this fall, and the American television audience's near total rejection of it for the warm bath of the familiar.

Maybe two facts tell this story of massive rejection better than anything else. More new shows were introduced this fall by the broadcast networks -- ABC, NBC, CBS and Fox -- than ever before. Yet, four months after the onslaught began, there is not one new hit show.

That is surely the most dramatic story of the television year.

But it is only the surface wave of a far deeper and more profound current in television, which Susskind and other executives are alluding to when they speak of patterns and lifestyles. The continued growth of cable and the mounting loss of audience for the old-line, broadcast networks -- ABC, NBC and CBS -- has been television's story-of-the-year every year since 1980. That pattern continued and shaped major developments this year.

The broadcast networks' combined share of the prime-time audience fell to 62 percent in 1990. That's down from 67 percent in 1989 and 85 percent in 1980.

Cable is now in 58.6 percent of (53.9 million) American homes. That's up from 55.6 percent in 1989 and 22 percent in 1980.

There were shifts in our viewing habits and lifestyles in just the space of this year, too. The most noticeable was the movement by viewers to the Cable News Network (CNN) during a time of national crisis.

With their coverage of the assassination of John Kennedy in 1963, the broadcast networks became a kind of informational central nervous system during times of crisis or change.

CNN arrived in 1980. And by 1986, when Challenger exploded in a blue Florida sky, viewers turned to ABC, NBC, CBS and CNN for information and reassurance from the anchor desks. With its 1988 political coverage CNN had become an equal of the networks in terms of national events and the rituals of televisual participation in those events.

With its coverage of the Gulf crisis this year, CNN moved into a league by itself, leaving the broadcast news operations behind.

There was much commentary this fall when it became clear for the first time that CNN was watched throughout the world. When it was understood that leaders like Saddam Hussein watched CNN and sometimes reacted to what they saw, the cable network was treated with a new respect by many analysts.

But something else happened with CNN's Gulf coverage -- something more important, which went largely unnoticed. CNN truly became television's first teller of the news.

One media observer compared TV news with traditional newspaper coverage to explain that change. He said CNN was now playing the role once exclusively held by morning newspapers, while the broadcast networks were forced to function as "afternoon newspapers." Since ABC, CBS and NBC could no longer compete on that front, they had to retool their approach to focus on reaction and analysis of the news, which CNN had delivered.

That's a big change. CNN is now at the center of the nation's informational nervous system, the place most of us will turn in the immediate aftermath of crisis.

The movement toward cable, videocassette recorders and independent channels and away from the broadcast networks is near the roots of most major stories in television this year.

Take the tremendous success of Ken Burns' "The Civil War" on PBS. The scheduling of the program was PBS' belated response to the changing television universe. Cable channels, such as Arts & Entertainment and Discovery, were eating away at the public television audience. PBS had to do something bold to get viewers' attention.

So the network took the best show it had and stripped it across five straight nights -- something it had never done.

Last summer at a press conference, Burns was asked if it wasn't suicide to run his series into the "teeth" of the networks' new fall season. "I don't think those teeth maybe have so much bite any more," he said. The result was the highest ratings for any non-fiction PBS series -- and more audience erosion for ABC, CBS and NBC.

"Twin Peaks" was another important story from 1990. Last spring it seemed as if "Who killed Laura Palmer?" was going to be as important to some of us as "Who shot J.R?" once was.

Robert Iger, the president of ABC Entertainment, says "Twin Peaks" was ABC's response to the changing television universe. Iger says it was an attempt to narrowcast or, as Tartikoff puts it, "hit a demographic bull's eye." The bull's eye was men and women 18 to 49 who found David Lynch's vision intriguing rather than weird. It's been called a postmodern sensibility. ABC reached that audience when "Twin Peaks" debuted last spring. But it's been steadily losing it.

What about the much publicized Thursday showdown between "The Simpsons" and "The Cosby Show"? That, too, is a result of the changing television universe.

Fox capitalized on the move by viewers during the '80s to independent stations by forming a confederation of them known as Fox Broadcasting. By May 1990, the ratings were so strong for some of its shows that Fox felt it could not only compete against the old-line broadcasters, but could take on their top show. Fox management felt it would achieve parity in viewers' minds by beating the best the networks had.

"The Simpsons" hasn't beaten "The Cosby Show." But it is competitive.

The irony is that, overall, this has been a bad year for Fox. This fall -- perhaps because of the expanded schedule or the strength of "The Simpsons" -- Fox started looking more like a mainstream network and less like a confederation of independents. Now it's getting the same anemic ratings for its new shows as the Big Three.

Why did so many new shows -- on Fox and elsewhere -- bomb?

It has been suggested that with the Gulf crisis in the Mideast and an economic crisis at home, the last thing we want is "bold and daring." We want television that is safe, predictable and reassuring -- everything the world is not these days. That may be the best mood-of-the-country explanation.

But Susskind is right, too. The failure is also a matter of lifestyles. A year-end Roper poll shows viewers rating cable as more varied and responsive to their interests than the broadcast networks. Viewers look to cable for new and innovative programming and to the broadcast networks for the familiar.

That would indicate that the networks got into the wrong business this fall with the innovative and daring. On the other hand, they have no future unless they can succeed at that business. That is the dilemma behind the confusing profusion of shows being added and cancelled and "hiatused" left and right this year.

Network executives say they are going to stay the course of innovative programming in 1991. Iger said earlier this year that he was going to be patient and give every new show a chance to find an audience.

That was just before he cancelled "Cop Rock."

TV 1990: Best and worst

CHEERS

1. "The Civil War," PBS. Remember when host David McCullough started his Homeric catalog of Civil War facts, and the melancholy musical theme was first sounded on one lonely fiddle? The TV moment of the year.

2. F.B.I. Agent Dale Cooper (Kyle MacLachlan) of "Twin Peaks," ABC. One of the richest television characters since Richard Kimble of "The Fugitive." He's a modern-day Odysseus, the classic hero on the hero quest, as seen through the quirky postmodern lens of David Lynch. 3. The "Keating Five" hearings, SPAN. Once again, cable television takes us inside worlds most of us would otherwise never visit.

4. "The Simpsons," Fox. Provided much-needed deconstructing of TV's image of the American family.

5. Saddam Hussein's press conference with children of the hostages, CNN. Not a pleasant moment, but an important one. It shocked some of us into realizing how visceral and irrational our responses to TV images can be.

JEERS

1. Andrew Dice Clay on "Saturday Night Live," NBC. If Clay's a champion of First Amendment rights, Huey Long really was a populist.

2. "Challenger," ABC. A shameless exploitation of the Challenger tragedy, a textbook on the sins of docudrama.

3. Early coverage of the Gulf crisis on the commercial networks. Saber-rattling, cheerleading and journalistic irresponsibility.

4. "ALF" finale, NBC. ALF was left in an open field, waiting for a spaceship while the Alien Task Force closed in on him. Shabby treatment, indeed, for the old Alfmeister and his fans.

5. Andy Rooney's phony "apology" for remarks construed as anti-gay, and CBS' handling of his suspension and reinstatement using Nielsen as its moral compass.

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