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Why Groundbreaking TV Is So Rare

Impatient executives, slow-to-build audiences stymie innovative shows like 'TV Nation'

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / August 16, 1995


It's 1:15 a.m. in a still bright and bustling Times Square, and a bleary-eyed Michael Moore has just finished a string of interviews with people who insist they don't want or need unions. Mr. Moore, the producer, writer, and host of Fox Television's irreverent ''TV Nation,'' tosses his microphone in the air, catches it, and with a sudden burst of energy turns his baseball-capped, 200-pound frame toward the camera.

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''It's not surprising corporate America has convinced most people they don't need unions,'' Moore ad-libs with a grin that cuts through the weariness. ''Unions have made it possible for most of us to have decent wages, health insurance, vacation time, and benefits.''

With sex and violence readily available on television, and talk shows giving vent to almost any kind of social or sexual oddity imaginable, it's surprising there's anything left that can be considered controversial on television. But Moore's iconoclastic documentary series fits the bill.

''What they have to deal with, with us, is not language or nudity or violence, it's ideas - and that's really dangerous,'' Moore says.

Will Emmy nominee last?

Since 1971, when Norman Lear's ''All in the Family'' first brought working-class reality and cutting political satire into the sanitized land of ''Ozzie and Harriet,'' networks have had love/hate relationships with groundbreaking shows. Many never get on the air, or are canceled after a short run. Those that survive, at least initially, often have to fight with network executives wary of offending sensitive advertisers.

But whether it's ''Maude,'' ''Hill Street Blues,'' or ''The Simpsons,'' such shows have started new trends, expanded television's boundaries, and proven to have long lives in syndication.

Moore's critically acclaimed show was just nominated for an Emmy. But he doesn't know if it will survive into the fall.

''I find it extraordinary that a show that was just nominated for an Emmy should even be associated with the idea of a cancellation,'' says David Mortimor, a producer with the BBC, which airs ''TV Nation'' in Britain.

But what may seem bizarre to the British with their noncommercial and sometimes-quirky television, is business as usual in Hollywood.

''The networks are in the business of short-term, bottom-line, thinking,'' says Norman Lear. ''In television that translates into 'Give me a hit on Tuesday night at 8:30, and [forget] everything else.''

What suffers, Lear says, is the innovation and risk taking.

''Any idea that inherently requires some time for the audience to get acclimated to ... has no opportunity to develop,'' Lear says.

While each of the three major networks has taken risks throughout the years, in general they remain cautious, relying more on ratings and demographic surveys than on daring, creative instincts.

The advent of cable TV, with its subscriber-based license to air almost anything, did nudge the three major networks in new directions. But it took the success of the upstart Fox network to really push their limits.

''We always talked about doing things to get us noticed, not gratuitously, but we wanted to do things that no one else was doing,'' says Bob Greenblatt, Fox's executive vice president for prime-time series development.

Fox became a network in 1990 when the warm-hearted ''Bill Cosby Show'' on NBC topped the ratings. So Fox executives developed the family satire ''Married ... With Children'' to be the anti-Cosby show. The new network put a cartoon, the irreverent and sometimes painfully honest ''The Simpsons,'' in the heart of its prime-time lineup. And it developed shows targeted toward teenage audiences, like ''Beverly Hills 90210.''