NEW YORK — THANKS to the writers' strike, the 1988 television season started slowly and maintained that sluggish pace even when the labor problems were over. Broadcast viewership slipped a few more percentage points, while cable viewership climbed to around 55 percent (approximately 50 million) of American homes. Meanwhile, the latest Nielsen figures show that more than 62 percent of television homes now have VCRs, which allow viewers to program their own evening's entertainment.
The most popular programs on commercial TV remain the old stand-bys: ``The Cosby Show,'' ``Cheers,'' ``Night Court,'' and ``Golden Girls'' (all on NBC). Only two new shows managed to slip firmly into the winner's circle: ``Roseanne'' (ABC), and ``Empty Nest'' (NBC). In ``Roseanne,'' Roseanne Barr plays a kind of female Archie Bunker - sarcastic, coarse, cutting ... and often very funny, if you like blue-collar insult humor. ``Empty Nest'' concentrates on single parenthood and has the advantage of following the popular ``Golden Girls'' on the Saturday night schedule. There is some clever writing, but this otherwise routine show depends upon fine comic performances by Richard Mulligan as a widowed pediatrician with three idiosyncratic daughters.
In this writer's opinion, the best of the new sitcoms is Candice Bergen's ``Murphy Brown'' (CBS), a series about a hard-edged but still vulnerable TV anchorwoman. Meanwhile, TV's best-written and most relevant comedy, ``thirtysomething'' (ABC), continues on its successful second-season way, digging slyly into the moods and mores of the baby-boom generation.
The cancelled new series I mourn the most, because of its honesty and, of course, its skillful use of my favorite TV comedienne, Mary Tyler Moore, is ``Annie McGuire,'' which still might return later in the year.
PBS presented some outstanding series: ``The Mind,'' which used top experts and super graphics to explain the complex workings of human intelligence; ``Voices and Visions,'' which probed the best creative minds in the arts and brought their work to an audience that might never have appreciated them; ``The Power Game,'' in which journalist Hedrick Smith explored the Machiavellian workings of parts of the US government; and ``Masterpiece Theatre's'' thriller ``A Perfect Spy,'' which delved masterfully into the mind-set of an intelligence agent.
But it was in non-fiction programming that the best and the worst stood out in starkest contrast. The worst had to be television coverage of the 1988 presidential campaign, where there was a capricious emphasis on style over substance. Political ads seldom focused on issues, and newscasters obligingly passed along the demeaning insults in which both parties indulged.
The season's other most disturbing news development was the growth of ``trash TV,'' a phrase which has come to refer to certain talk shows as well as certain borderline news programs. The worst talk shows were ``Geraldo'' and ``Morton Downey, Jr.'' - which offer titillation masquerading as information. Geraldo Rivera hit a personal all-time low with an NBC devil-cult special, which embarrassed all who watched, including the NBC brass, though it attracted a record-breaking audience. ``The Reporters'' and ``A Current Affair'' (both on Fox) brought the peephole perspective of the worst of tabloid journalism on stories of murder, divorce, and oddities, into TV news.
In a more positive vein, two newspapers launched evening news programs: ``World Monitor,'' a television presentation of The Christian Science Monitor (Discovery), and ``USA Today: The Television Show'' (syndicated).
Two non-fiction series proved to be the highlights of the 1988 season for me: ``Bill Moyers' World of Ideas'' (PBS) and Ted Koppel's ``Nightline in Israel'' (ABC). The Moyers series consisted of conversations on a broad cross-section of subjects with 50 people of ideas and vision, ranging from Barbara Tuchman to Isaac Asimov and Tom Wolfe. During ``Nightline's'' week in Israel, Ted Koppel managed to get Israelis and Palestinians to sit down in a Jerusalem studio (though with an artificial border between them) to discuss Middle East problems face to face. It was a fascinating exercise in electronic diplomacy.
For this writer, the Moyers and Koppel shows will be the TV events from 1988 I'll remember most ... and treasure.