New TV season, old TV strategy


Los Angeles -- FOR THE NETWORKS, these are the bad new days. The strong winds of financial turmoil are rocking and reeling these once stable and solid ships of the American economy.

The erosion of audience to cable, independents and Nintendo continues unabated. The news divisions are suffering so many layoffs that they seem on their way to becoming nothing more than an anchor talking into a lone, robotic camera, introducing reports provided by local affiliates.

The sour advertising market, the cost of covering the Persian Gulf war, the Hollywood price spiral that drives up the price of proven talent provide further headaches.

Even the good news often arrives with an odor. There's a good chance CBS will be the number one network in prime time in the coming season, completing a last-to-first run that would be admirable and remarkable except for one important fact. It will make that leap on the springboard of baseball and Olympic programming that it paid far too much money for. The big bills for the sports rights are a heavy addition to the network's already precarious financial condition.

Understand that the absurdly large salaries that baseball players are commanding these days are a direct result of the $1-billion CBS deal. So every time you hear of CBS closing a news bureau or laying off more employees, realize that the money that used to pay those workers is now underwriting a utility infielder's $1 million a year paycheck. Don't blame the infielder, blame the stupid CBS executives who signed the deal.

And recognize that when a network like CBS starts putting on old reruns during the summer -- "All In the Family" and "Police Squad" -- it's looking for every possible way to cut costs, even if its prime-time schedule begins to resemble that of a local independent station that relies on syndicated reruns.

So now, as the networks prepare to trot out their new fall shows for the nation's TV critics making their semi-annual trek to Los Angeles, it appears that they have responded to these attacks of outrageous fortune not with a bold flanking action or a risky leap behind enemy lines but by circling the wagons and hunkering down.

Indeed, look at CBS. This is the network that stumbled onto the most interesting new hour show of the past season in "Northern Exposure" and seems to have a hit on its hands as well. So what does it order for the fall? One from Glen Larsen, a producer who can be relied upon to produce second-rate action fare, and another from Stephen Cannell, who can make good shows, such as "Wiseguy," but can also shovel the schlock with the best of them as he did with "The A-Team" and a host of others.

The two animated shows that the networks ordered in the wake of the success of "The Simpsons" -- Tim ("Batman") Burton's "The Family Dog" for CBS and Stephen Bochco's "Capital Critters" for ABC -- were both held back for mid-season. NBC didn't go with a puppet comedy based on the "Saturday Night Live" character of Toonces the Cat.

More of the details of what is coming in the fall will be revealed in the next couple of weeks, but one mini-trend does emerge from the schedule announcements -- there are three new shows, one per network, that are set in the fairly recent past, a time that is accessible to baby boomers' memories.

NBC has the quality drama "I'll Fly Away," which looks at a family in a small Southern town in the early 1960s as the civil rights movement was beginning to change a long-established way of life. CBS has a show from Gary David Goldberg called "Brooklyn Bridge," a half hour about growing up in Brooklyn in the 1950s. And ABC has "Homefront," a drama from David Jacobs about life in America just after

World War II.

There are valid reasons that these shows might appeal to a country plagued by crime and drug use, fighting a lingering recession and a reduction of international economic status and, perhaps most importantly, beset by a confusing melange of images -- a conservative president runs up huge deficits, liberal congressmen oppose a black nominee to the Supreme Court.

How much simpler it was growing up in Brooklyn back when nobody locked their doors and everybody looked after everybody else's kids. How much clearer were the moral issues of race relations when Jim Crow laws were still on the books. And what a fertile field of opportunity stretched out before the country in 1945.

These nostalgia shows must have had a strong appeal to network executives who remember the years when the networks had a 95 percent share of audience, when even the lowest rated show made money, when programming a network was a simpler game, much more fun to play.

For the networks, those were the good old days. But looking back at them is no way to face up to an uncertain future.

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