1990 was a bad year, probably the worst ever, for television


If the television industry had a theme song for 1990, it would be decidedly downbeat, perhaps "It Was a Very Bad Year."

For almost the entire television industry, 1990 was the worst year ever, marked by loss of momentum, loss of market share and loss of money.

Although cable television and Fox Broadcasting expanded impressively, they each lost some momentum in their programming.

The three networks lost mightily in market share, far worse than they had expected, with Fox and cable channels grabbing more and more of the prime-time television audience.

And CBS, after paying exorbitantly for sports programs, will report that it lost money in the fourth quarter.

CBS is hardly alone in the loss column. ESPN, the all-sports cable channel that is 80 percent owned by Capital Cities/ABC, lost money on its portion of the Major League Baseball contract. Another cable channel, Turner Network Television, lost money on its National Football League contract.

And a large number of producers lost money on failed programs in prime time and syndication.

The projections for 1991 offer little cheer. Declining revenues are forecast at all three networks. And with the prospects improving for an easing of federal restrictions that prevent the networks from taking a financial interest in programs produced by outside companies, there is more and more speculation that either CBS or NBC, which is owned by General Electric Co., will be sold (with Walt Disney Co. mentioned as the most likely buyer).

In the meantime, many deals are being made with foreign broadcasters because the future of broadcasting looks so much better internationally than domestically.

Virtually every company involved in television programming suffered this year from the deep and continuing slump in advertising sales. Even cable television, which again picked up millions of new viewers, found that not as many advertising dollars were being spent as expected.

"Given the combination of the networks' loss of share and the falloff in advertising, it would be accurate to call this the worst year ever," said David F. Poltrack, senior vice president of research for CBS.

The gloom certainly fell heaviest on the networks. Each instituted layoffs in some form, with all three news divisions affected because of their sizable staffs.

CBS reduced the money it gives to its stations to carry its programs, stirring up a potential revolt. Many local television stations also laid off workers, often in their news divisions.

A year ago, the networks had expected the expansion of homes with cable television to slacken and the impact of the emerging Fox network to be far less striking.

In 1989, the three networks' share of the prime-time television audience had fallen to an average of 64 percent. Poltrack said he had projected that the decline would begin to slow sharply in 1990, with the networks losing only another two percentage points of the audience by 1995.

But as 1990 draws to a close, the numbers indicate the opposite: The networks' audience share for the year will be 61 percent.

"We're already lower than our projection for 1995," Poltrack said. "Now we have to think about a three-network share in the mid-50s by then."

CBS did show new life in prime time. The network gained competitively on its rivals, but the broader picture showed that -- the other networks fell back closer to CBS' level.

NBC's dominance in prime time disappeared. ABC's expected rise stalled. More than 30 new series appeared in the fall; none qualified as a legitimate hit.

Fox failed to gain an advantage for its shows despite its growth; it did not develop any breakthrough hits this fall either.

And cable displayed some programming limitations for the first time as new channels struggled to survive. The two most publicized new channels, both all-comedy entities, were compelled to merge.

Both Fox and the cable industry also had reason to be concerned that regulatory action in Washington could impede their further growth.

But the problems of CBS stood out in a year especially undone by excessive payments for sports. The network took a loss of more than $100 million on baseball alone -- and indicated it would lose about $300 million during the life of its four-year

baseball contract.

The losses were so heavy that CBS asked Major League Baseball for financial relief.

CBS' sports strategy was dogged by plain bad luck as well, as each of CBS' top events produced a less-than-thrilling climax.

The Super Bowl on CBS in January was a suspenseless rout; so was the NCAA basketball final in March. The National Basketball Association finals in May were a near sweep; the baseball playoffs in October contributed one sweep out of two.

And the four-game World Series supplied the unkindest sweep of all, because CBS had hoped for six or seven games to help recoup some of its sports losses.

Still, the networks' plummeting share of the prime-time audience appears to be the industry's most worrisome problem.

The networks have numerous explanations: the siphoning of more attractive programming (like NFL football) to cable; the added audience for the Fox stations, which had about half as many viewers when they were independent stations; the Nielsen audience measurement system, which the networks still say cheats them out of their rightful number of viewers.

There have even been some candid admissions that network programs simply are not compelling enough.

As a result, the networks have changed their argument about long-term viability. Now, the message is: Even with an audience share in the mid-50s, it is remarkable how many viewers the networks have held onto.

If the networks had been Coca-Cola and suddenly had to compete with 40 or 50 new soft drinks on the market, it would be amazing if they could hold onto more than half the market.

But the networks are not institutions in which people are accustomed to the idea of diminution. "The whole thing is depressing," said a senior network executive, who insisted on remaining anonymous. "We're presiding over networks as they head out of business."

The assessments are not always that gloomy. But some degree of depression is understandable. The holiday season often is the hardest time for those who have suffered a great loss during the year.

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