TV ratings: the scramble is on for fall
New York — ''The tightest three-network ratings race in years'' is predicted for the 1984-85 television season by Philip Burrell, TV programming vice-president of an advertising agency that purchases close to $300 million worth of television network advertising time for its clients.
Dancer Fitzgerald Sample Inc. produces an annual report - prepared by Mr. Burrell - that has come to be anticipated in the TV industry as a harbinger of things to come in the TV season ahead. As a matter of fact, some agency people believe it is a major influence on other agency buying decisions. Called the Network Television Season Analysis, it was recently released to the television industry. Aside from the prediction of a tight race for the No. 1 spot, Mr. Burrell reports what might be considered a couple of perennial new-season observations: ''a sense of optimism at the networks,'' as well as ''an honest effort to achieve excitement in the programming.''
The analysis, however, while stroking the networks for good intentions, then proceeds to make some very negative estimates of the chances for success (not usually based solely on content excellence) of most of the 22 new shows on this September's schedule).
* None are given an ''excellent'' rating.
* Only four (''Paper Dolls'' and ''Finder of Lost Loves'' at ABC and ''The Bill Cosby Show'' and ''Hunter'' at NBC) are rated ''good.''
* One new series (''Murder, She Wrote'' at CBS) is judged this year's ''sleeper.''
''Paper Dolls'' (now scheduled for ABC, Tuesday, 9-10 p.m.) is a serial drama about the business world of fashion and modeling, starring Lloyd Bridges, Morgan Fairchild, Kristy McNichol, and Brenda Vaccaro.
''Finder of Lost Loves'' (now scheduled for ABC, Saturday, 10-11 p.m.) concerns an agency that helps people locate past loves and stars Tony Franciosa and his trusty computer, named Oscar.
''The Bill Cosby Show'' (now scheduled for NBC, Thursday, 8-8:30 p.m.) stars Cosby as a New York City obstetrician who lives in a brownstone with his four teen-age children.
In ''Hunter'' (now scheduled for NBC, Friday, 9-10 p.m.) Fred Dryer plays a maverick cop who sometimes bends the rules in the name of the law. He is matched with a tough female partner (Stephanie Kramer). Executive producer is Stephen Cannell of ''The A-Team'' fame. ''Murder, She Wrote'' (now scheduled for CBS, Sunday, 8-9 p.m.) stars Angela Lansbury as a kind of combination of Agatha Christie and her famous eccentric fictional character, Miss Marple.
I decided to have a chat with the influential Burrell, architect of the report.
''All bets are off if they start shifting programs,'' he laughed in response to my suggestion that there is bound to be a lot of rescheduling before the season officially begins.
Since he or his staff has managed to see just about everything - pilots, excerpts, presentations - concerning the new series, has he spotted any new trends?
''The one major trend is the return to the accent on police action-adventure drama. Many NBC shows are the best examples of that. But the other networks are also returning to that form.
''It's NBC's way of arriving at a format, familiar to viewers, which has worked in the past. They went through their upscale, 'improving television' phase a few years ago and learned rather hard lessons. Then they went through an innovative phase last year with shows like 'Manimal' and 'Mr. Smith.' Now they are returning to a familiar format that's been around as long as television - the police drama. I see a 100 percent increase in that form this season.''
Mr. Burrell has spotted a couple of especially intriguing mini-trends - lots of men in the kitchen in new series, and lots of gun-wielding women. Well, it's a change, anyway.
He basically believes, however, that the networks are''treading water'' in terms of innovation this year. ''They're going more for the glitzy, glamorous look, as in 'Glitter' and 'Paper Dolls' on ABC.''
The only return to old-fashioned family values in the works, according to Burrell, seems to be in the Michael Landon series, ''Highway to Heaven,'' on NBC.
''It's clearly going to be a show that the whole family can watch. Whether in this day and age there will be a large enough response to such a moral, deliberately paced show remains to be seen, even though Landon's participation ensures its quality. But it may be that the slick, high-action series may have left that kind of show behind.''
Does it appear that there will be more violence in series TV this year?
''All these new police shows mean more violence, whether it's on or off camera. I think there will be more inferred (off-camera) violence, however.'' He also believes that the blending of humor into the action shows will tend to soften the effect of the violence.
Since Burrell's advertising agency buys so much TV advertising each year, doesn't he agree that the real control of program content rests with the advertising agencies? Isn't it fair to say that networks give the agencies what their clients want?
Mr. Burrell is quiet for a moment while he considers whether or not I am attacking him. Of course I am. But he answers anyway.
''It's certainly true that networks have become more aware of demographics. And that, in a sense, is giving the advertiser what he wants. The advertiser has various (age) targets - 18 to 34s, 18 to 49s, teens, whatever. The networks are very much aware that when they are up against a hit like 'Dallas' or 'Magnum P.I.' on another channel, they can't win, so they must counterprogram - to at least get the females, for instance, to make their own program attractive to sponsors.
''So if you mean that kind of control - yes. The networks schedule relates to what they anticipate will be the strengths and weaknesses of the competition.''
Does Burrell allow his personal taste to influence his evaluation of potential hits and failures?
''No. I try to identify with the audience. Don't forget, these ratings are based upon more than just screenings. They are based also upon scheduling, and an evaluation of creative people assigned to the show in front of and behind the camera, (and) particularly by impressive track records.''
Burrell's own taste in TV runs to ''Dynasty,'' ''Falcon Crest,'' ''The A-Team ,'' ''Family Ties,'' and ''Cheers.'' But he stresses that when an ad executive recommends a program to a client, he has to disregard his own taste level and ''think of the demographics for the product he is trying to sell.''
But how can you rate a show ''poor'' and then go ahead and buy it for your client?
''The ratings are not artistic ratings, just chances for success. Shows will be priced accordingly. You can't buy all 'Dallas's' and 'Magnums,' because you'd be getting audiences well beyond your need. So the networks put together a package based on the demographics you want to reach. They'll throw in one top-rated show, for instance, and at least one lower-rated show to amortize the expense. Sometimes a bad show may be very efficient for your demographics - something that reaches a large teen audience and nothing else, for instance.''
Burrell doesn't feel that the 1984-85 season offers very much in the way of excitement. ''Any excitement will have to come from miniseries. The networks are going full tilt with miniseries in terms of investments, scheduling, and commitment. There are over 100 hours of scheduled miniseries'' (Such as ''Christopher Columbus'' (CBS), ''Ellis Island'' (CBS), ''Mistral's Daughter'' (CBS), ''Space'' (CBS), ''Robert Kennedy and His Times'' (CBS), ''A.D.'' (NBC), and ''The Sun Also Rises'' (NBC).
He believes, however, that too many second-rate properties are being turned into miniseries and the networks run the risk of wearing out their welcome for miniseries.
''The fact is, I don't find it a terribly interesting season,'' Burrell admits. ''There's nothing that jumps out at me and says, 'This is going to be an exciting show' and I'd better rearrange my schedule to watch it.''
Is he speaking as an individual or as an advertising agency executive?
''As an individual. But on the other hand, there doesn't seem to be one show out there that will demand great audience excitement, either.'' Watergate documentary
The summer of 1974 may have been one of the most meaningful seasons in recent history for United States constitutional government. It was the summer of the Watergate hearings, then the impeachment hearings.
Later that year, WETA, Washington, presented an acclaimed documentary, ''Summer of Judgment: The Watergate Hearings.'' Now there is a sequel: Summer of Judgment: The Impeachment Hearings (PBS, Wednesday, Aug. 1, 10-11 p.m., check local listings).
It is a compelling, frightening, sad show - but one that needs to be seen. Despite the fact that it includes the resignation of President Nixon, this condensed electronic version of the pre-impeachment process ends up making one proud to be a part of a government that can manage to integrate that process into its workings and survive so well.
The 38 members of the House Judiciary Committee who were asked to pass judgment have, for the most part, since faded into comparative obscurity. But for one week in July 1974, the nation watched them deliberate on television. It saw them agonize over what constitutes ''high crimes and misdemeanors'' in the presidency, over specificity in the charges.
Now, with Richmond Times-Dispatch correspondent Charles McDowell (''Washington Week in Review'') as host, those discussions are re-created from hours of tapes. In addition, executive producer Ricki Green, with co-producers Jim Wesley and Sue Ducat, have gone back to interview some of the participants in the deliberations to get their current reactions with the added perspective of time.
About the moment when she had to vote ''aye'' for impeachment, ex-congresswoman Barbara Jordan of Texas says: ''It was an awful moment ... we went back behind the committee hearing room to the offices and several of us cried ... that the country had come to this. ... There was no jubilation ... it was somber.''
Committee chairman Peter J. Rodino (D) of New Jersey says: ''The judiciary committee ... became in my opinion truly statesmen. ... I think all of them just met their fullest potential and really displayed what I suppose everyone would want to believe a congressman or congresswoman is all about.''
''The Impeachment Hearings'' is a program filled with such intensity, such bitterness, such reluctant admission of wrongdoing, that it is a special joy to watch some of the positive forces at work. One can see the emergence of chairman Rodino as a major moral force, the glowing sincerity of Barbara Jordan, the evolution of righteous men from fervent partisanship to patriotic fairness.
''The next time there may be no watchman in the night,'' sums up former congressman James Mann of South Carolina at the conclusion. But he forgets that television has become a new ''watchman in the night.'' Perhaps we cannot depend upon it to monitor crime in high office, but this superb condensation of the impeachment hearings proves that, in the right hands, television can be an enormous aid in putting recent complex events into long-range historical perspective.
''Summer of Judgment: The Impeachment Hearings'' performs a major public service by refusing to allow us to forget what ought to be remembered for the good of constitutional democracy.