The Small-Screen Scramble Continues

The Small-Screen Scramble Continues
by L. Brent Bozell III
January 14, 1998

Reflections on some recent plot developments in the long-running soap opera "As the TV Industry Turns":

-Marc Gunther's incisive piece in the January 12 issue of Fortune updates and analyzes the ongoing television story of the decade: the broadcast networks' shrinking viewership. This decline has reached the point where, as Gunther writes, "the networks are no longer reliable profit makers." Therefore, vast corporations like Disney increasingly treat their owned webs "not as loss leaders exactly, but [primarily] as ways to... promote their more lucrative operations" - movies, theme parks, and so on.

Alas, Gunther buries his lead; not until page five of the six-page article does he quote an anonymous television executive who illuminates the why behind the what. The cause of the networks' long-term slump, declares the executive, is their preoccupation with appealing to 18-to-49-year-olds: "Everybody's going after the same writers, the same concepts, the same audience. They're programming themselves out of business... This is a dying business, and very few of the people involved want to admit that the patient is sick." It follows, then, that almost no one will acknowledge that a cure is needed, and that the cure is family programming. -Not so long ago, however, one infirm network made those acknowledgments. In 1996, a floundering CBS, having failed in its effort to attract a young, urban audience with racy, "Friends"-like sitcoms, changed its approach, positioning itself as the most family-oriented web. Adding such shows as "Cosby," "Promised Land," and "Early Edition" to the already successful

"Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman" and "Touched By an Angel," CBS built a largely wholesome lineup that carried it to victory in the November '97 sweeps. Score one for old-fashioned fare. But effective early this month, CBS took a major step backward when it replaced "Dr. Quinn" with "The Magnificent Seven," a violent, TV-14-rated Western, at 8 o'clock Saturdays."Dr. Quinn" deserves far better. It blazed a trail for CBS's other hit family dramas and for five years has performed well in the ratings. Its numbers are down, but it still won its time slot during the November sweeps. Moreover, shelving it in favor of "The Magnificent Seven" means that the network's entertainment chief, Leslie Moonves, has reneged on last summer's promise to air only family-friendly shows between 8 and 9 p.m.

In making that promise, Moonves cited "Dr. Quinn" as a series he was especially proud of - and appropriately so. "Dr. Quinn" espouses the values parents want instilled in their children. It presents marriage positively, promotes respect for parents and other authority figures, and otherwise asserts the importance of family. Moonves should honor his commitment and return "Dr. Quinn" to the family hour, where it belongs.

-If CBS continues to retreat from its pledge to serve families, UPN may benefit. UPN's boss, Dean Valentine, took power only a few months back and hasn't had the chance to truly put his stamp on the part-time web, but his statement earlier this month about what he's planning for the fall was encouraging.

Valentine told TV critics that next season, his programming philosophy will be "UPN for UPS." United Parcel Service drivers, he explained, "are men, women, black, white, all sorts of races, all ages. They're making a good income, they have houses, they have families, they have kids. They are the American middle class." Even so, he added, they are mostly ignored by the networks, which prefer to "program for a sort of psycho-yuppie in Manhattan."

-It's much easier to assess "Seinfeld" now that the uproar over its May departure has died down.
First, have you noticed that it is, almost certainly, the most unintentionally polarizing hit in television history? For many years, on Friday mornings in offices throughout America, there have been those who discussed - dissected, even - the previous night's episode, while others in the same office, baffled and perhaps annoyed by the series' popularity, simply could not understand what the fuss was about. It's hard to imagine "I Love Lucy" or "Mary Tyler Moore" or "Cheers" eliciting similarly strong feelings, positive or negative. (Not a few of Norman Lear's shows were highly provocative, but they were designed to be. All "Seinfeld" wants to do is entertain, and it still gets on many people's nerves.)

Second, even though "Seinfeld" can be quite funny, it's also seriously flawed. Its main flaw, which it shares with plenty of today's sitcoms, is an obsession with sex. The four regulars, all of them single, often were sexually active, and a few years ago, when a recurring character announced she was a virgin, she was treated as if she were from another galaxy. In terms of wit, "Seinfeld" is without peer, but in terms of subject matter, it's too much a product of its times.