On TV: Weaker Shows, More Options

Sweeping change has its roots in the technology that allows viewers to become their own programmers

FUELED by our basic human curiosity and thirst for diversion, the driving force of change in the world of television has been - and is - technology. Cable TV, satellite relays, and the videocassette recorder (VCR) started muddling America's three-dominant-network television profile a decade ago, and they're still changing the picture.

The next developments on the horizon - high-definition TV, interactive and educational options, and such futuristic visions as holographic TV - will bring more change in years ahead.

With a few key exceptions, the options provided by the present and coming technologies are exerting a domino effect on every aspect of the young medium and impelling the rapid changes we're seeing on our TV screens.

The scenario of change

Here's a (simplified) scenario: Cable TV, satellites, the VCR, and remote controls begat more viewing alternatives (dozens of channels, ease in selecting them).

These alternatives begat a fragmentation of the television audience, which in turn begat increased competition (``newer,'' ``bolder'' programming).

Heightened competition drove programmers to desperation (ratings-driven programming, hardly any time for a new show to succeed), and the desperation begat increased emphasis on style, packaging, and sensation (slicker pacing, more images per minute to discourage channel-switching). That's where we are at the start of the '90s.

``The proliferation of channels and producers' attempts to keep you from switching is making TV look like it has been put in a blender,'' says Brian Stonehill, a professor of English at Pomona College in Claremont, Calif., who teaches a course in visual literacy.

To counter what is called ``grazing'' or ``cable surfing'' (the tendency for viewers to sample scores of channels in seconds with the touch of a button), TV editors are endeavoring to simulate ``grazing'' by giving a greater and more diverse array of ``nibbles'' per minute per program.

``In sports, we now see instant replays from not one, but up to six angles,'' says Mr. Stonehill, ``because programmers are afraid of any lull in the action.''

``The world viewed on TV has become a kaleidoscopic collage, a mosaic of imagery for the `Sesame Street' generation grown up,'' says University of Houston professor Garth Jowett, who has written several books on the effects of TV. ``Viewers now sample ideas and information [in the same manner as ``Sesame Street''] for only 50 seconds at a time.''

The increasing pressure to hold viewers also means that broadcasters must find ever-more-creative ways to enliven (some would say ``blur'') the mix of programming so that it will appear to offer all things to all viewers.

All things to all viewers

Thus in the '90s, we're likely to see even more of today's hybrids:

``Info-tainment,'' the mixture of news with entertainment, as deployed on such shows as CBS's ``Prime Time Live.''

``Dramedy,'' the mixture of drama and comedy in shows such as ``thirtysomething'' and ``The Wonder Years.''

``Kid-vid'' and MTV, a further mixing of product promotion with entertainment.

And so-called ``reality'' television, the gritty, hard-hitting instant documentaries like those on ``48 Hours'' and ``Hard Copy.''

In the series area, ``Twin Peaks,'' an ABC midseason replacement, may prove typical of future attempts to hold viewer interest. Its producers are attempting to expand the vocabulary of series TV by giving startling twists to standard plot situations, musical and visual cues, and other conventions. Some critics are calling the show ``the series that will change TV.''

Erosion of network audience

The desire of the networks to change the current TV picture is clear. Over the past 10 years, the commercial giants have lost 30 percent of their audience to cable, independent stations, VCR viewership, and ``super stations'' such as the Turner Broadcasting System in Atlanta and WWOR in the New York City area.

In 1960, a given half-hour evening time slot might have featured a situation comedy (sitcom), a variety show, and a game show. In 1990, the same slot could well offer viewers who receive cable a dozen of each - plus movies (both new ones and reruns); a channel or two for home shopping via TV; a half-dozen religious programs; another half-dozen talk shows; round-the-clock news, weather, and sports; and telecasts of proceedings from the US House and Senate and the British Parliament.

There are those who predict that by the year 2000 the weekly TV listings will resemble today's phone book.

On commercial TV, targeting programs to attract a certain segment of viewers is a way of staking out potential customers for advertisers, who pay most of the bills.

``The increasing segmentation of the television audience and the trend to `narrowcast' programming to target specific audiences will be the dominant story of television for the next 10 years,'' predicts Howard Myrick, chairman of the radio and television department at Temple University in Philadelphia.

``There is a channel for teens [MTV],'' continues Mr. Myrick, ``a channel for kids [the Disney Channel, Nickelodeon], women [Lifetime], sports enthusiasts [ESPN], high-brow culturists [Arts and Entertainment, Bravo, the Discovery Channel], and a host for shoppers and the religious.''

For advertisers, ``It's much more complicated now,'' laments John Sisk, head of network negotiations for J. Walter Thompson, a major ad agency. Advertisers ``have to be far more selective in the programs they choose. We also have to consider all the options of cable and syndicated shows. The market will continue to fractionalize, no question.''

In addition to the many technological advances, a number of other forces of change are at work in the world of TV:

Changing demographics

Changes in the American population - fewer housewives, fewer children, fewer large families, and more elderly people - mean shifts in what programs are offered, when they're offered, and what is advertised with them.

For children, the number of shows whose main characters are also marketed as toys has skyrocketed, while the number of hours of commercial children's programming was plummeting. From 1979 to '83 the average time commercial stations allotted to children's shows dropped from 11.3 to 4.4 hours a week, and the after-school time slot was left without a single regularly scheduled network children's series.

Meanwhile, the growth of the elderly population has resulted in such shows as the hit sitcom ``Golden Girls.''

More local autonomy

In recent years, local stations have been taking far more liberties than in the past by bumping low-rated prime-time network fare to make room for shows that bring in higher revenue. To boost viewership (and thus income) for local newscasts, there has been a trend in to include more of the national and international items once reserved for the network news, thus cutting further into the networks' audience.

Meanwhile, Congress, the National Association of Broadcasters, and the National Cable Television Association are engaged in a fierce debate about possible revisions in the 1984 Cable Act, which prohibits government from regulating rates charged by cable companies. The outcome - with a 50-50 chance of new legislation this year - could affect cable costs, the size of companies, and the entry into the cable market of such major players as America's telephone companies.

Program exports

The question of legal or voluntary quotas on how much US programming other countries will accept also looms, with strong sentiment in Europe that program imports should be more of a two-way street. The question will be complicated by the dropping of trade barriers across Europe in 1992. Experts forecast a head-on collision of national interests.

The export question also heightens the pressure on the commercial networks. ``The US network license fee no longer covers the cost of production, so the Americans have had to look at foreign markets to plug the gap,'' says David Plowright, chairman of Granada Television International in Britain.

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