Network TV. After years of decline, better days ahead?
Los Angeles — IS network TV still declining under the onslaught of cable television and videocassette recorders? No, say the entertainment programmers of the top two commercial networks. The stiffened competition over the last few years has forced network broadcasting to become ``a smarter business,'' and has produced, for the discriminating viewer, programming that is ``pretty good and getting better.''
Which of their current shows best represent network programming for the future?
``The Cosby Show'' and the new Mary Tyler Moore show, ``Mary.''
These were a couple of the points made at this newspaper's recent round-table bringing together two top veteran tastemakers -- the entertainment-programming chiefs of the two leading commercial networks, NBC and CBS. (The new programming director at ABC, which is running third in the ratings, is not yet making himself available to the press for wide-ranging comment.)
What follows is a condensed version of the conversation in which Brandon Tartikoff, president of NBC Entertainment, and B. Donald (Bud) Grant, president of CBS Entertainment, shared their ideas -- and network self-evaluations -- about current issues inside the industrythat will soon affect all TV viewers.
The Monitor: With the advent of cable television, many people predicted the demise of over-the-air broadcasting. Are we now witnessing the demise of TV as we have known it?
Grant (CBS): Not at all. Network television is healthy. There have been healthier times -- I wouldn't kid you. But we're reasonably healthy, and the outlook is very bright. There were those who were saying that radio was going to be dead when television came along. But radio is bigger now than it ever has been. So I don't believe television is in the twilight of its career.
Tartikoff (NBC): It is not just a coincidence that, as the competition for our audience gets stronger, our programming gets better. The competition has made extinct some of our lesser efforts . . . -- the more derivative, lowest-common-denominator, least-objectionable programming. You can't get away with just putting on another show and figure you'll get a 30 share [30 percent of the TV sets turned on during a given time segment] just because you are dividing up the pie and there are only three players. What it has forced us all to do is focus on the programming that is the most resilient to the competition, and that generally is programming which is well written, well acted, that is about something relevant. And it may take a little longer for these shows to establish themselves, but I think we have all exhibited far more patience in recent times than, say, 10 years ago, in staying with shows we believe in, because those shows ultimately end up being the cornerstones of a network schedule. They turn out to be the shows that outperform their national Nielsen ratings [those for TV households across the board, whether they are cable subscribers or not] in HBO households [those that subscribe to the Home Box Office cable channel]. The ``Miami Vices,'' ``Cheers,'' and ``Hill Street Blues'' get far higher ratings in HBO households than they do in the national Nielsens. So those shows are the wave of the future. That's where television is headed.
The Monitor: Are we due to see an increase or decrease in the amount of violence in TV programming?
Tartikoff: There's sort of a pendulum-swing back and forth every three or four years. It goes from sex over to violence and back to sex. I think we're now moving into the violence mode. We're trying to exercise very strict standards . . . , no gratuitous violence, and we have tried to stay away from proliferating the schedule with a lot of shows with squealing tires and machine guns. I would say that right now, given the current amount of action shows we have, we probably need not increase beyond what we already have. Maybe next year we'll be down an hour from what we have now. We seem to be in an age where the shows that are succeeding in the ratings are steering more towards the comedies and the serials. But I would say that if there were a positive correlation between the amount of gunshots in an hour and the amount of Nielsen points, there'd probably be a greater tendency for networks, in their desperate moments, to put more of that on. But there isn't that correlation, and I don't think you'll see a lot of cop shows or heavy-action shows joining the network lineups. In fact, most of the recent cancellations are in that genre.
The Monitor: Now that American television viewers have had a chance to sample, and accept or reject, the NBC and CBS 1985 seasons, what have you learned that will affect programming in the months to come?
Grant: It's easier to tell what doesn't work. We had a strategy on Saturday night which did not work. We were going to compete not only with NBC and ABC but with the VCR owners who were renting or buying movies. Well, either our movies weren't strong enough, or the competition was just too severe on Saturday night. But I feel good about Sunday night, because I was quite concerned about ``Amazing Stories'' [on NBC], but our ``Murder, She Wrote'' is doing fine.
Tartikoff (NBC): I think it is still too early to tell about certain shows. But let me point out a few trends: Carbon copies of ``Miami Vice'' [NBC] have not worked, but then, second-generation shows inspired by big hits have in the past usually not done as well as the original. I think the American public is savvy about spotting a knockoff. Secondly, I think that all three networks have done their jobs well, because the three networks' ratings are up at the most crucial time for all of us . . . , the November sweeps [the period each fall, winter, and spring when the ratings figures are garnered, on which rates for advertisers on the networks and on local stations will be set]. There are more viewers watching network television than there were last year. [Viewership of network programming had been generally declining or stagnant in recent years.] It proves that we can actually bring an audience back to watching network television, despite the fact that the competition is probably even more severe this fall than it was the year before.
Grant: I think everything boils down to the product that's on the air, from whatever source. The technology doesn't really make success. Whether it's cable, independent, or network, it's the product that's on the air that the public really responds to. And it looks as if we have turned the corner and that the various technologies which were considered at one point to be the be-all and the end-all of television are just not happening anymore. People are now understanding that network television really is pretty good . . . and getting better.
The Monitor: There was a time when networks thought that the major use for VCRs would be time-shifting: recording network television shows and watching them whenever the viewers with recorders -- and statistics indicate that about one-third of America's TV households have them -- wished to watch. But it seems that the renting of movies on cassette has taken precedence over that. Will this continue?
Grant: The recording that gets done seems to work in our favor. I just read a Russell Baker column about how he can go out bowling on Thursday nights now because he can record ``Hill Street Blues'' and watch it whenever he wants.
Tartikoff: It [the recording of over-the-air programs] may actually help us in advertising circles, in that viewers may watch an episode several times, commercial and all. It is much like a magazine that sits on a coffee table and tends to have life even after the subscription date has passed.
The Monitor: Let's examine some quotations on television programming that are on the public record: ``All hits are flukes.''
Tartikoff: I was quoting from The Book of Fred [Silverman, who was president of ABC, when both Silverman and Tartikoff worked there]. But I believe that. I'm not talking about a show that is fortunate enough to follow another show that has already established itself. I'm talking about something that just comes out of the blue and surprises everybody -- everything from ``The Dukes of Hazzard'' to ``Miami Vice.'' Before those shows went on the air, you could have found nine reasons why they would have failed. Programmers always hope that everything is going to be a hit, but we tend also to see the seams in the product, as well. When I put on ``Miami Vice,'' I thought that I would have, by the end of the year, maybe a 20-share show in a time period when we had been doing a 16 share. It was a fluke [it is now a 30-plus-share show]. Big hits do not try to feed on what the public has already shown an appetite for; the big hits sort of create an appetite. That is the hardest thing to do -- anticipate where an audience might want to be led.
The Monitor: So would you say that ``The Cosby Show'' and ``The Golden Girls,'' two of this season's most watched, were flukes?