Why are the networks giving us families in crisis?

You see families in crisis coming out of the networks these days in assembly-line fashion, with all the sameness and glossiness that implies. Network specials on drug abuse (``Not My Kid'' on CBS), a family discovering their child is homosexual (``Consenting Adult'' on ABC), parental suicide (``A Reason to Live'' on NBC), and ``Surviving,'' ABC's grueling three-hour dramatization of teen-age suicide, have all aired in recent weeks. ``Kids Don't Tell,'' about a family whose life is disrupted when the father becomes involved in a documentary on child molestation, airs on CBS, March 5, 9-11 p.m. What you get with these special efforts may vary in dramatic intensity. In the case of ``Not My Kid,'' there were a couple of outstanding performances and not much more. In ``Consenting Adult,'' Marlo Thomas turned in a poignantly believable performance as the mother of the boy. And the cast of ``Surviving'' includes three actors -- Paul Sorvino, Marsha Mason, and Ellen Burstyn -- with enough talent to move you and keep you moved.

But while the dramatic quality may vary, there is hardly any variation in the underlying business of these TV movies. Even though the programs' producers and creators may sincerely believe that they are bringing social relevance to the medium, it's clear from watching the results that the industry's same old motive -- to boost ratings -- is at the bottom of this trend. And that is why they are now breaking ground that they have only been scratching at for years.

I think the ground is dangerous.

That conviction came upon me as I watched Paul Sorvino reeling over the body of his daughter in ``Surviving.''

There was something so familiar about the scene. Ambulances were pulling up. Neighbors had been drawn in small knots onto the street corner. Two young bodies were wrapped in white on the lawn. The parents, stunned and in shock, were trying to recover their composure.

It took a while for me to realize what was missing from this classic television scene, so reminiscent of the evening news. Then it hit me. There was no microphone-wielding reporter shoving a question in the faces of the bereaved.

We had broken through the barrier of distant news. We could come into the living room, into the bedroom. We could watch these people suffer in every corner of their private lives. The people we hear about on the news. The people we fear we might become.

The networks were taking the stuff that makes us squirm (but keeps us watching while we squirm) and turning it into something close up. Human. Personally painful. Arresting. And in its usual approach to social phenomena, it was turning this human pain into a demographic strain, something belonging to ``nice families'' with good homes. Something belonging to us.

All you can say to that is, why? Why are the networks suddenly, in such abundance, turning to these subjects?

I think it is because depressing social issues have been proved in recent seasons to generate high ratings and to attract the advertisers that once stayed far away from them. Television has been reaching for a way to counter the threat of pay cable with its R-rated movies. And poignant coverage of a national crisis unfolding before our eyes has always been the strong point of the medium.

The fact is, though, that almost every time the medium strays in its treatment of such subject matter from news to drama, its appetite for sensational footage intensifies, its superficial summarization of enormous social complexities becomes more obvious, and its weakness for quick fixes of social problems is indulged.

You can't sit through many of these movies without getting the impression that a marketing and packaging wizard is pulling the strings somewhere. We are not talking here about a playwright or novelist searching through the debris of life and coming across something painful that needs to be told. We are talking about programming executives plotting schedules against potential ratings. The motive here is to get ratings to make money; and it shows, because all we get is marketable sociology crammed into a neat television package.

In ``Consenting Adult,'' we were supposed to find some hints of a cause for the son's homosexuality in his father's macho-bravura and the lack of sexual contact between the father and mother. As the boy gravitated toward a more open homosexuality, it was like watching someone moving through casebook steps we've read about a thousand times. In no way were we ever involved in a life springing from the inner life of each of the characters, which might have led logically to the question of homosexuality.

The family in ``Kids Don't Tell'' is even more prefabricated. Once we see these people, see where they live and their television good looks, we know everything there is to know about them. What really counts here is the subject of child molestation and finding another angle to get it on television.

Because of the subject matter, we naturally find at least a low-grade involvement with the business at hand. Even though these are, generally speaking, plastic people with artificial insides, our concern about the issues they represent carry us along.

But not so far that you don't wind up feeling terribly cheated. Because this show promised, as did all the others, to give us some real feeling about people caught up in murderous circumstances. With this came another implicit promise that by understanding their lives we might try to understand our way out of such social ills.

In the end, none of this is delivered. All we understand is that television networks are experimenting with new ways to make a buck. And that they are using a questionable mechanism to get there.

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