Commercial TV fends off new competition -- with old ideas

Commercial television may be drawing its wagons into a circle for a last stand against the savage inroads of higher technology. But it seems to be fighting the battle with the same old programming weapon -- status quo.

As the total number of over-the-air television viewers slides downward inexorably and the total number of cable viewers creeps upwards relentlessly, the three commercial television networks react ambivalently. On the face of it, they go on coolly dreaming up new but familiar variations of lowest-common-denominator series, for the most part; on the other hand, they are busily inaugurating or acquiring cable television systems and services of their own in preparation for the day when cable TV reigns supreme among America's in-home electronic viewers.

Whether cable TV will eventually win out over direct broadcast satellites, over-the-air pay TV, videodisks, and video tape recorders is still a moot point. What is not moot at all, however, is the fact that old-fashioned over-the-air broadcasting can still be very profitable for a few years more (albeit not quite as profitable as it was at its peak).

Cable and the other broadcast methods are still in most cases marginally profitable, with the billions of dollars of profit still beckoning in the near future. But entrepreneurs must have the capital to take possible losses as they wait for the profits to start rolling in. That is why more and more creative entrepreneurs are entering the software (programming) field, where the product will be usable in whichever medium proves to be the big winner.

So better prepare yourself for another commercial television season of more of the same -- with just a bit more fantasy-adventure than usual among the 25 new series just announced.

If the latest reports of the effect of TV violence on young viewers frightens you, be assured that the networks have not scheduled any shows which, on the surface, will depend upon violence for their appeal. But there is a need to keep a day-by-day watch on segments of most shows to make certain that ratings-pulling violence doesn't creep in the back door.

Just as the networks draw their wagons into a circle to protect themselves against the inroads of cable, TV viewers must position their own wagons strategically to make their own stand against violence, immorality . . . and vacuity. That doesn't necessarily mean joining any censoring-oriented organization, but it certainly does mean using the weapon of the pen to let network programming heads know exactly how you feel.

The three networks have released the first version of their new schedules for the 1982-83 season, to be started sometime in September, although the good old days of a tripartite agreement on starting dates has fallen apart, with each network beginning its season whenever it sees fit. There is the additional pattern of canceling failing shows early and substituting new ones around the first of the year. So there has developed a year-round ''new season'' pattern.

Another fairly new pattern visible in these first new-series announcements is the tendency to cancel borderline successes early -- even if they are old (or recent) favorites. Thus, ABC is canceling ''Taxi'' and ''Barney Miller,'' NBC is shedding ''Maverick'' and ''Flamingo Road,'' CBS is canceling ''WKRP in Cincinnati'' and ''Lou Grant.'' Both ''Taxi'' and ''Lou Grant'' would seem to have some life in them still -- but Ed Asner's outspoken public criticism of US policy in Central America seems to have created both viewer and sponsor antagonism, something with which commercial television cannot cope. (The production and writing crews of both ''Lou Grant'' and ''Taxi,'' however, emerged from the MTM production operation, so don't be surprised if the superlative staffs of both end up at NBC, where former boss Grant Tinker toils as chief.)

ABC, with seven new series (three are comedies, four action-adventure shows), features among its comedies a major oddity: a new, blackface version of the ''The Odd Couple,'' brilliantly renamed ''The New Odd Couple.'' The show stars Ron Glass (of ''Barney Miller'') and Demond Wilson (of ''Sanford & Son''). Somebody should inform ABC that this color-switch routine is an idea past its prime. It was used a few decades ago -- doing ''The Mikado'' and ''Dolly'' with black actors.

ABC, like the other commercial networks, is looking toward escapism in many of its programs. So ''The Quest'' is a modern update of the Camelot story, with four Americans claiming the throne of a mythical Mediterranean kingdom.Ironically, all of the networks, including ABC, have concentrated on ''social relevance'' in their new comedy series. ''Star of the Family'' is about a generation-gap between a rock singer and her tradition-bound dad, ''For Better or for Worse'' concerns the life style problems of dad when his spouse becomes a working mother.

NBC, still trailing behind the two other networks in ratings, is bringing in four new comedies and seven action-adventure series. NBC seems to be the most innovative of the three this season. Aside from continuing with the low-rated but highly acclaimed ''Fame,'' it is also returning with ''Love, Sidney.''

In the area of escapist fantasy, NBC leads the way with ''Gavilan,'' which features ''Vegas'' star Robert Urich as a kind of civilian James Bond, complete with gadgets. ''The Powers of Matthew Star'' concerns a seemingly ordinary high-school teen-ager who just happens to hail from another planet. ''Knight Rider'' deals with a champion of the underdog who uses an incredible indestructible black car. ''Voyagers'' is a time-travel actioner, prepared especially for family audiences to run opposite ''60 Minutes.''At CBS, with four new comedies, the three new action-adventure series include ''Bring 'em Back Alive,'' about big-game tracker Frank Buck and his dealings with exotic animals, and ''The Good Witch of Laurel Canyon,'' about a private detective with psychic powers.

To sum up -- there is a faintly discernible trend to fantasy drama and family comedies -- both, in a way, forms of escapism. But basically, the American TV public is being offered this season just about what every previous season has offered -- a wide variety of mindlessness. Specials

There is much greater interest in all three networks' programming of specials , minseries, and made-for-TV movies.

ABC, for instance, plans a 16-hour version of ''The Winds of War'' and a nine-hour dramatization of ''The Thorn Birds.''

NBC plans repeats of ''Shogun'' and ''Jesus of Nazareth''; a miniseries based on the book about Gloria Vanderbilt, ''Little Gloria . . . Happy at last''; and a special based on Norman Mailer's book about Gary Gilmore, ''The Executioner's Song.''

CBS has scheduled a miniseries version of a Bruce Catton Civil War book, ''The Blue and the Grey,'' and a six-hour version of ''Robert Kennedy and His Times.''

If you are searching for quality in programming, however, you'd better check your local cable system and make sure it carries CBS Cable and ARTS services, both cultural cable services available at no charge to the consumer.

If this preview of network new-season programming disappoints you, remember there is always the alternative, generally high-level programming of public broadcasting, still battling for its life against Reaganomics and cable inroads. Many of the recent fund-raising efforts have not been as successful as hoped, so now is the time to come to the aid of PBS . . . with both pen and pocketbook.

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