Pasadena, Calif. — AS memories of unending Quayle quips fade into the television afterglow of this week's 44th annual Emmy awards, several themes have emerged from the show itself as evidence of tube trends for the 1990s:
Industry soul-searching. As shown by this year's self-acknowledged surfeit of nominating categories (75) and confusing classifying process, program producers are in a creative cloud about what they are trying to achieve. By blurring distinctions between comedy, drama, and animation across the spectrum of teen-, family-, and adult-themed programming, TV innovators are stretching further and further to outdo what has come before.
"The medium is now 50 years old and is running out of viable ways to permute and combine," says Matthew McAllister, professor of communication studies at Virginia Tech. in Blacksburg, Va."They are trying to find a specific niche to appear special, broaden the appeal to attract enough audience to stay on the air, and react to the diversifying pressure of cable all at the same time."
Recent failures such as "Cop Rock" and "Twin Peaks" were all-out attempts to turn TV conventions on their ear. This season's six awards to "Northern Exposure" - the never-predictable series based in Alaska - shows that both the public and critics bought its inventiveness. "We challenge people...we leave fill-ins for audiences to connect the dots," says Diane Frolov, writer for Northern Exposure.
Politicization of the airwaves. The unabashed "stomping" of Vice President Dan Quayle, as described by co-host Dennis Miller, shows that early broadcast television's goal of reflecting a broad array of audience viewpoints - or at least not offending them - is being chiseled away.
"TV is not as concerned with alienating the great masses," says Lawrence Wenner, professor of communications at the University of San Francisco. "This year's Emmys showed producers weren't so concerned with being branded liberal or conservative."
From opening to closing remarks, Mr. Quayle was lampooned for his attack against TV character Murphy Brown for having a baby out of wedlock. Quayle "not only took jabs at me and mine, but the entire Hollywood community," said actress Candice Bergen backstage. "So fair is fair."
Sari Thomas, a communications theorist at Temple University in Philadelphia, says that the TV medium has always been inherently political, just more subtly so. "A campaign for the vice presidency is about as appropriate a platform for critiquing TV comedy as the Emmy awards are for critiquing the vice president," she says.
Media self-consciousness. Several theorists hold that the dwindling ratings of the Emmy-awards ceremony show not only increased public impatience with self-con- gratulation, but also with a determination by producers to woo audiences by drawing attention to the medium's artifice and personalities. Nominee Roseanne Barr, for instance, quipped incessantly about not being nominated in the past.
Co-host Miller drew out a long monologue with references to his own failed, late-night show.
"These are dark times for the Emmys, which are old enough to be venerable and revered but instead are merely creaky and disreputable," opined a columnist in the Entertainment Weekly.
To which some experts are adding: "As the award show goes, so goes the medium."