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Commercial TV fends off new competition -- with old ideas

By Arthur Unger / May 18, 1982

New York

Commercial television may be drawing its wagons into a circle for a last stand against the savage inroads of higher technology. But it seems to be fighting the battle with the same old programming weapon -- status quo.

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As the total number of over-the-air television viewers slides downward inexorably and the total number of cable viewers creeps upwards relentlessly, the three commercial television networks react ambivalently. On the face of it, they go on coolly dreaming up new but familiar variations of lowest-common-denominator series, for the most part; on the other hand, they are busily inaugurating or acquiring cable television systems and services of their own in preparation for the day when cable TV reigns supreme among America's in-home electronic viewers.

Whether cable TV will eventually win out over direct broadcast satellites, over-the-air pay TV, videodisks, and video tape recorders is still a moot point. What is not moot at all, however, is the fact that old-fashioned over-the-air broadcasting can still be very profitable for a few years more (albeit not quite as profitable as it was at its peak).

Cable and the other broadcast methods are still in most cases marginally profitable, with the billions of dollars of profit still beckoning in the near future. But entrepreneurs must have the capital to take possible losses as they wait for the profits to start rolling in. That is why more and more creative entrepreneurs are entering the software (programming) field, where the product will be usable in whichever medium proves to be the big winner.

So better prepare yourself for another commercial television season of more of the same -- with just a bit more fantasy-adventure than usual among the 25 new series just announced.

If the latest reports of the effect of TV violence on young viewers frightens you, be assured that the networks have not scheduled any shows which, on the surface, will depend upon violence for their appeal. But there is a need to keep a day-by-day watch on segments of most shows to make certain that ratings-pulling violence doesn't creep in the back door.

Just as the networks draw their wagons into a circle to protect themselves against the inroads of cable, TV viewers must position their own wagons strategically to make their own stand against violence, immorality . . . and vacuity. That doesn't necessarily mean joining any censoring-oriented organization, but it certainly does mean using the weapon of the pen to let network programming heads know exactly how you feel.

The three networks have released the first version of their new schedules for the 1982-83 season, to be started sometime in September, although the good old days of a tripartite agreement on starting dates has fallen apart, with each network beginning its season whenever it sees fit. There is the additional pattern of canceling failing shows early and substituting new ones around the first of the year. So there has developed a year-round ''new season'' pattern.

Another fairly new pattern visible in these first new-series announcements is the tendency to cancel borderline successes early -- even if they are old (or recent) favorites. Thus, ABC is canceling ''Taxi'' and ''Barney Miller,'' NBC is shedding ''Maverick'' and ''Flamingo Road,'' CBS is canceling ''WKRP in Cincinnati'' and ''Lou Grant.'' Both ''Taxi'' and ''Lou Grant'' would seem to have some life in them still -- but Ed Asner's outspoken public criticism of US policy in Central America seems to have created both viewer and sponsor antagonism, something with which commercial television cannot cope. (The production and writing crews of both ''Lou Grant'' and ''Taxi,'' however, emerged from the MTM production operation, so don't be surprised if the superlative staffs of both end up at NBC, where former boss Grant Tinker toils as chief.)