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Wanted: U.S. network programmers with guts and taste.

If you asked an old-time broadcaster what doing television meant -- in the days when television was exciting enough to change people's lives -- the answer might be: Being sued, mobilizing the masses, starting protests, making people cry or laugh, and giving viewers straight facts."

In taking a look at the U.S. networks today, one can see that for the 1991-92 season, the networks are going to try to recapture at least some of the audience with "tried and true" programming, thus, playing it safe. In news, the trend is now less news for less money.

Inevitably, the whole question of network program content again becomes a topic of examination and rumination. It is tied to questions about the continuing decline of the network audience, and the collective judgment -- or misjudgment -- of the men and women responsible for what gets made, and what gets on the air.

What motivates the network programmers? Why, despite the drop in the networks' audience share, are they not roused to offer the public more exciting, provocative, intelligent fare during those 22 prime time hours the networks have to fill each week?

As far as the networks are concerned, some of the answers appear obvious: cable, the independent stations and VCRs.

But, all of that doesn't fully explain the apparent lethargy of the programmers, and their unwillingness to deviate from prevailing program mediocrity. Excluding some past attempts with a few challenging shows, there is hesitancy to "take chances" based on the unending refrain of "but, we're giving |em what they want."

The evident factor is fear -- fear of being blamed, fear for that lucrative job.

After all, these programmers who decide what America will see von prime time television, are among the best-paid in the industry. This is a powerful incentive not to rock the boat and to resist event the most logical pressure for change.

"You can always preserve your job by putting on a bad situation comedy. If it fails -- as most of them do, no one is going to say, |Boy, you really took a chance there! What a fool!'" said Neil Gabler, the author of An Empire of Their Own. Gabler writes extensively about the media.

"On the other hand, to do something that is really adventuresome, to take real chances on TV, and to fail -that is really jeopardizing your job. That takes guts."

The program failure rate is impressive. The networks opened last fall with 59 new shows. Only nine of them survived.

For the current season, out of 28 new programs offered by the networks, 18 are sitcoms, which means that some 50 sitcoms are currently on the air on all four networks.

A good example of network attitudes was cited by a syndicator, who dealt with Judy Price, the CBS vp, children's programming.

Offered a new children's program, she turned it down with the comment: "The business is too competitive. I can't take anything original."

Brian Lacey, director of marketing development for Zodiac, points to the insecurity that dominates broadcast programmers. "They always want their decisions validated," he said. "If they fail, they want to be able to explain that the failure came from a production house that had been successful in the past, so no blame attaches to them. I think they should take more risks," said Lacey.

Within the industry, the timidity and limitation of the programmers creates a plenitude of frustrations. "They can't rely on their own reactions because they are jellyfish," argued Jay Tarses, who created such series as the Days and Nights of Molly Dodd and Buffalo Bill.

However, it isn't completely fair to blame the current predicament of the American networks on executives. After 20 years of hard work in the TV industry, they want to cash in and finally make some "real" money for at least three years.

Of course, it would be preferable to have independently wealthy network programmers, who can stand up to the networks' "bean counters." Therefore, the fault might largely lie with the networks' corporate structure. As U.S. budget director, Richard Darman, said in a 1986 speech when he was deputy secretary of the Treasury, a major problem is that "large-scale corporate America" has a tendency to be "bloated, risk-adverse, inefficient and unimaginative."

In his book, Three Blind Mice, author Ken Auletta tried to answer what went wrong at the three networks. "The new owners began by focusing on costs and ended thinking more about revenues," he noted. News is likely to suffer the most in the future, Auletta wrote. "Increasingly, news is viewed as an important but expensive luxury." And he cites the quote from Jack Welch, the GE chairman: "News is not the core of the asset."

Years ago, news was network television.

Then there is the question of how much is enough. Collectively, the three networks have lost about $300 million in revenues in a year. Those losses, however, were offset by the drastic cuts at the news divisions, lower programming costs, reduced general upkeep and layoffs. In effect, the networks are now offering inferior products to fewer people for the same expense/revenue ratio. According to some observers, soon both GE and Larry Tisch will be selling their respective networks, NBC and CBS. It is hoped that it will not be too late.
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Copyright 1991, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Publication:Video Age International
Date:Oct 1, 1991
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