Fall Season: Networks Strike Out Again

Summer is the broadcast television networks' equivalent of baseball's spring training. In each case, it's a hopeful time, when new shows have the potential to make a splash in the upcoming season, just as rookies do; and broadcast networks dream of finishing atop the final standings, just as teams do.

The major difference is that in baseball, there's a winner for every loser, whereas in today's broadcast network game, almost everyone is losing. The statistics tell much of the story.

During the week of September 21, the networks rolled out not only the bulk of their debuting series, but also the vast majority of the fall premieres of their returning shows. As always, they had extensively promoted this programming, and magazines like TV Guide had devoted considerable space to the new season, further widening and deepening public awareness of the supposed small-screen delights ahead.

How did the public react? Unfortunately for ABC, CBS, and the rest of the broadcast networks, plenty of viewers were in front of their sets - but tuned to basic cable channels, the audience for which increased 14 percent over the corresponding week last year. Meanwhile, after all the hype, the broadcast webs were down a staggering 8.5 percent from their 1997-'98 premiere week.

The results capped a splendid third quarter of '98 for basic cable, which increased both its rating and its share 13 percent over the third quarter of '97. Clearly, part of the growth is attributable to Monicagate; CNN, MSNBC, and Fox News Channel each drew far more viewers than it did last summer. But family-oriented channels performed strongly as well - Nickelodeon was up 11 percent; the Cartoon Network, 23 percent - suggesting yet again that the broadcast networks' obsession with attracting twenty- and thirtysomethings, to the exclusion of practically everyone else, is a mistake.

The terrible numbers for the broadcast networks confirm they are in a disastrous free fall. During '97-'98, they lost almost two full rating points (i.e., almost two million households) from the previous season.

What to do? Some industry bigwigs have a clue. At a panel discussion last month in New York, veteran sitcom producer Marcy Carsey ("The Cosby Show"; "3rd Rock from the Sun") argued that the webs have gone too far in pursuing the young-adult demographic, have "forgotten who they are and what their mission is. They've given away whole segments of their audience...If they don't have the kids [as viewers] now, what is going to happen when [those children] grow up?" Carsey's right, but she doesn't always walk it like she talks it: she contributed to the family-unfriendliness of prime time when she produced "Men Behaving Badly."

Others are clueless. Far down the insightfulness scale from Carsey is NBC entertainment boss Warren Littlefield, who apparently wants to reach adults who think like children. At a Hollywood fall-season kickoff luncheon, Littlefield was asked to name his favorite non-NBC series and chose Comedy Central's celebration of vulgarity, "South Park." (He claimed his selection was based on "seeking to stay popular with my kids.") Littlefield thus joins CBS's Leslie Moonves as a network programming chief who seems to believe "South Park" would be a desirable addition to his schedule.

A short-term aid in dealing with prime time tastelessness is TVGuardian, a device which reads a television show or videocassette's closed captioning, mutes off-color words, and provides clean substitutes in the closed-caption field. It has two settings: "tolerant," which lets pass certain milder terms, and "strict," which doesn't.

The device, marketed by Principle Solutions of Rogers, Ark., carries a suggested retail price of $199.95. Early this year, its inventor, Rick Bray, expressed irritation with Hollywood's foul-mouthed fare to ABCNews.com: "People talk about letting your kids see the real world. Well, my house is the real world and we don't talk that way."

I salute Mr. Bray's ingenuity. But no contraption will ever mute what's really wrong with the typical prime time show. It's not just the offensive language, it's the obnoxious storylines themselves. And what's on TV is not just morally offensive, it's intellectually insulting.

One of the most hyped new series this year is UPN's "The Secret Diary of Desmond Pfeiffer." It's different, all right. This sitcom centers on Pfeiffer, the butler for President Lincoln. Now, I haven't watched - and won't watch - this foolishness, but I couldn't escape the promos. In this week's episode we find the president gallivanting around the White House in women's underwear as he's exposed as a - yuck! yuck! - cross-dresser. I'm not kidding.

Such is life in TV land, where moronic programming has no limits. It makes you want to reach not for the remote control, but for a hand grenade.