Boston — The yearly round of TV laurels ended last night on an upbeat note with the prime-time Emmys co-hosted by David Letterman and Shelly Long and televised live on NBC from the Civic Auditorium in Pasadena. But somewhere behind the jubilation lurked a realization that this 38th award ceremony marked some fundamental changes in network TV and some serious challenges both from within and without.
As cable TV and home video eat into network viewership, all three major commercial networks -- operating under new management -- face mounting cost pressures. And, at the same time, they perceive the need to continue improving the quality of prime-time programming in order to meet the competition, two veteran TV-industry watchers tell the Monitor.
Network television ``is still the dominant and most lucrative form of programming,'' says Merrill Brown, executive editor of the noted communications magazine Channels, reached by phone in New York. ``But the prime-time audience is down . . . . There's no question about the network share being lower than it's been historically. It's not the only game out there any more.''
Not just prime-time entertainment, but network news faces new competition. ``As the dominant role of prime-time programming as the foremost entertainment medium is fading,'' notes Mr. Brown, ``I think to a certain extent news is too. There are too many alternatives.''
In an effort to meet the competition head on, many analysts feel some network entertainment has achieved a jump in quality recently, offering formats, talents, and names that only the big networks can afford -- so far.
``I think there is a certain big-event strategy emerging,' Brown observes, ``huge, costly events like Liberty Weekend, which really only the big three can still do. Epic-scale, made-for TV movies are going to be a big factor in the next season. Obviously, there is no one devoting the resources, as yet, outside the big three [networks] to acquire the best talent there is out there. And CBS, NBC, and ABC have the Cosbys and the Larry Hagmans, and so forth, in number far and away above the cable networks and pay networks.''
Prime-time fare in general has been getting better, Brown feels. ``If you look at the No. 1 network [NBC] and its success formula,'' he points out, ``it is by and large, with a few exceptions, a formula based on `quality.' . . . That's an encouraging sign.'' And the network TV programming heads ``are all pretty literate, young, hip guys,'' he says. ``I think they realize the way to distinguish network TV over all the alternatives is to do a lot of things well. And I think if you compare the 1985-86 season's top ten with some years previous, it's improving. The reign of the hour-long, sort of trashy serial show is ending. It's being replaced by a different kind of genre, things like ``Moonlighting'' and ``The Cosby Show,'' ``St. Elsewhere,'' and so forth, which are all examples of a better kind of programming than we were seeing -- certainly in the late '70s or early '80s.''
Can the three networks do this and still live with the new budgetary squeeze they are feeling?
``There's a big flap in Hollywood right now between the networks and studios about excessive costs,'' Brown notes. ``And we're seeing increasingly an effort to watch the use of six helicopters when one will do in the filming of a show, and those kinds of things. So at the same time they are pouring money into big-dollar events . . . there is this cost pressure on the other side of the coin. So it's a very interesting time in that regard.''
Brown's feeling about the jump in quality is shared -- but from a very different basis -- by Alison Alexander, associate professor and director of the graduate program for the Department of Communication at the University of Massachusetts. She cites the revival of the situation comedy and sees it as a healthy sign.
``I'm happy about it because I think they tend to look more at small groups interacting together,'' she observes by phone. ``They don't always do it very well, but if we could take ``The Cosby Show'' as a paradigmatic series, you would love to see families watching that together, wouldn't you? . . . It presents a family in a positive light. It presents a good role model and good relationships among children -- without being sappy or saccharine . . . .''
This change, however, is but one adjustment in a generally bleak picture, according to Ms. Alexander, who is also book review editor of the quarterly Journal of Broadcasting and Electronic Media.
``You're dealing with a whole set of programming which is not what any thinking person would want,'' she says. ``There's so much to object to . . . , so much mindless, sanitized violence. Compare `The Cosby Show' to the `A-Team,' for example . . . . I object to violence, and it's being presented as having no consequences. I think that's particularly bad for young children.''
What impact the change in ownership at ABC and NBC and the change in managment at CBS -- after decades of never changing hands -- means for such network practices is impossible to read, at least for the short term, Brown points out. ``There's a whole new kind of manager running networks,'' he notes ``bottom-line-oriented, financial guys as opposed to broadcasters per se, whose careers have been in network broadcasting . . . . It's a different world.''
In this new world, some of the ``competing'' VCRs may actually be increasing the use of TV sets, Brown estimates -- because they allow viewers to tape programs they might otherwise have missed. ``I think people are using their televisions more than ever before, for better of for worse,'' he says.
It's how the set is used that counts, according to Ms. Alexander. ``I've observed a lot of families, and I see people using the medium and using programming as a topic of conversation, as a way to bring the family together. I think that's excellent. If people can do their viewing within a family context -- rather than letting their viewing push out everything else, including talking to other people -- that kind television can be a positive force. But it requires individuals to be selective and communicative.''