Stand by for a season of sleaze

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Pasadena, Calif. -- If you thought network television couldn't get worse this season, brace yourself.

We are about to be deluged with more cheap, sensational and, in some cases, offensive "reality" programs than at any time in TV history.

This isn't just a rant about junky specials or a whine over a bad programming cycle. What we are talking about is what looks to be a major shift in the most fundamental genres of prime-time programs.

Dramas and sitcoms, the networks' bedrock since the earliest days, are being replaced not just by the endless cloning of newsmagazines and a tremendous surge in animation, but, far worse, by more and more reality specials with such titles as "When Good Pets Go Bad II" and "Confirmation: The Hard Evidence of Aliens Among Us."

Perhaps the most depressing aspect of what's happening is that network executives say the talent to produce more quality series, like "NYPD Blue" or "Frasier," is readily available. But the economics of TV has changed so dramatically recently that there is only enough profit for a handful of series like "The Practice" or "ER" to be made at any one time. Call it the debasement of prime time.

"The fact of the matter is that the economics of network television have changed, and it's tougher and tougher for the networks to make money," Sandy Grushow, the former president of Fox Entertainment, said last week at a panel on the future of prime-time programming.

"With only one of the six networks, NBC, doing it [making a profit] right now, clearly the networks are trying to systematically figure out a way to reduce costs. That's why you're seeing 'Dateline' running five nights a week on NBC -- and all the reality specials, too.

"But I think doing business that way might be a little bit shortsighted," added Grushow, who now runs Twentieth Century Fox, the production company that makes such series as "NYPD Blue" and "The Practice."

At the core of economic change are reduced revenues for the major networks. The last two decades have seen an explosion in independents like the WB and cable channels like HBO. They are competing with the major networks for advertising dollars and driving up the cost of talent. All this at a time when new corporate owners like Disney are demanding greater and greater profitability.

Grushow is being diplomatic in using the adjective "shortsighted." Even a cursory sampling of the programs headed our way in February and roaring straight through to May is enough to induce nausea.

For example, "Robbie Knievel Building-to-Building Death Jump Live" will be followed Feb. 4 on Fox by "The World's Most Shocking Moments #2," which promises "unbelievable footage of courtroom brawls."

A week later, on "World's Wildest Police Videos," Fox will offer more "unbelievable footage" of "female police officers posing as prostitutes in a series of stings." Meanwhile, "Busted on the Job," which featured a worker soiling her boss' office in a way I can't describe in this newspaper during the November sweeps, vows to takes us higher Feb. 25 with "Busted Everywhere."

"Guinness World Records: Primetime" on Feb. 9 profiles two boys who have the genetic disorder known as "werewolf syndrome." A week later on "Guinness" the champion worm swallower defends his title.

The ultimate Fox reality special for February sweeps, though, is "Opening the Lost Tombs: Live From Egypt" on March 2. In a show about the Egyptian version of Al Capone's vault, Fox will take viewers along as a sealed chamber in Queen Khamerernebty II's pyramid is opened.

Doug Herzog, the new president of Fox, defends the specials. In answer to a question last week about Fox's most recent "Guinness Book of Records" special, which featured one man blowing spaghetti out his nose and another who hung weights from his nipples, Herzog said: "Yes, it's over the top, but there is clearly an appetite out there for that kind of thing. And you could probably say maybe we've been doing a little bit too much of that lately. But there is a place for it, I do believe, on Fox."

If it were only Fox it might not be so troubling. But, because of Fox's great success with junk specials -- "Busted on the Job," for example, finished eighth out of 110 prime-time shows during the last week of November -- everyone is getting into the act.

The two-hour special, "Confirmation: the Hard Evidence of Aliens Among Us," will air on NBC, not Fox, this spring. Furthermore, Bruce Nash was hired recently to produce the same kind of specials for NBC that he made at Fox. Nash, dubbed the Dean of Reality Programming by Entertainment Weekly, was responsible for such Fox fare as "When Good Pets Go Bad."

Don Ohlmeyer, the departing West Coast president of NBC, refused to air such specials during his tenure, calling them "snuff TV." But Scott Sassa, the entertainment president who will succeed Ohlmeyer later this year as head of all West Coast operations for NBC, defends them.

"What we have to do is look out and see the different forms [of programming] that are out there. And clearly reality shows are doing well," Sassa told critics here last week, announcing that NBC would soon launch its own "World's Most Amazing Videos" series.

ABC is also wading into the mud.

"We have a number of reality shows in development, because our schedule needs balance," said Stu Bloomberg, chairman of ABC Entertainment.

"When you have a schedule that has very strong dramas that are expensive, you need to balance that out with reality programming that can still be of good quality but doesn't cost as much."

Bloomberg said ABC's specials won't be as low-down and nasty as those on Fox.

"Well, you know, I don't want to say anything negative about their specials because lord knows they sure pull in a number [big rating]. But I don't think ours will be as shocking, as visceral. We just won't go to that territory," he said.

Don't you just love to hear network executives explaining how their sleaze is morally superior to the next guy's?

In the end, it is all about dollars and cents. Networks are getting out of the quality business because the margin of profit is no longer large enough. So, more newsmagazines, more animated series and, worst of all, more bad reality specials are headed our way because they are cheaper to produce. We are on the verge of on-the-cheap becoming the dominant look and feel of prime-time network television.

And the networks wonder why their audiences continue to decline.

"At a certain point, the question is: How do you stop the downward spiral that the networks seem to be on?" Grushow asked.

"I don't think another episode of 'Dateline' is actually going to be able to do that. But I do think another show like 'ER' might."

But how much longer will the networks even try to make any such expensive, high-quality shows in the new, low-rent thinking of network television?

Pub Date: 01/24/99

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