IF treading water constitutes a policy, if a holding action qualifies as a strategy, then the three major commercial networks can claim to have a battle plan of sorts as their fall season draws near.
Beyond that, the new series being offered on prime time suggest a kind of default to the safety-first approach that has often been network broadcasting's recourse over the decades. Only last fall, ABC and NBC were taking a modestly venturesome step into a territory - call it youth appeal - that had been Fox country for several seasons. ABC's "The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles" and NBC's "The Round Table," for instance, were ushered in, while solid but graying winners like 'Matlock" and "The Golden Girls " were foolishly ushered out.
By contrast, this coming fall's lineup on ABC, CBS, and NBC is distinctly unremarkable. It does include several series built around single parents. It has more news magazines and fewer of some other types of reality shows like "Top Cops." But the youth campaign is missing, replaced by a schedule that, on the whole, is careful, restrained, and largely devoid of anything suggesting a new direction.
If you think one reason for this is the failure of many of last season's youth-oriented shows, you're right. But even larger problems are reinforcing the networks' timidity. For one thing, their slice of the TV-viewing pie - "share" in industry lingo - has been declining for the past several years. During prime time, networks are still far ahead of any other form of TV, reaching about 71 percent of the people watching the tube (if you include Fox). But syndicated shows like "Time Trak" have been invading
prime time, competing for viewers. In addition, as the advertising agency McCann-Erickson points out, money trouble has forced networks to produce more shows in-house, reducing the likelihood of groundbreaking ideas from the outside.
The agency also cites recent attacks on offensive program content as contributing to this fall's neoconservatism, although that hasn't stopped ABC, on Tuesdays, from scheduling "NYPD Blue." It's the new lineup's most boat-rocking program and one that has already generated controversy. The show's creator, Stephen Bochco, is also responsible for the award-winning 1981 series "Hill Street Blues." Reports say his new show "pushes the envelope" of TV acceptability - a trendy way of saying it has an unpreceden ted level of sex, explicit language, and violence.
But meanwhile, even a sampling of the new series tells a story of shows trying not to rock the boat - especially the financial boat. On Mondays, for instance, CBS is launching "Dave's World," with "Night Court's" Harry Anderson playing what CBS calls "a child of the '60s trying to survive in the '90s, confronting the absurdities of life - as husband, father and semi-responsible citizen." The format is standard sitcom - a family drama built around an agreeable star.
Tuesday includes "Phenom," a sitcom about a teenager typical in many ways except that she's a "phenomenal" tennis player who has big-time potential. She also has a mom who wants to keep her "normal.' It's a convenient formula for light-weight tensions that accommodate gag lines and are resolvable in 30 minutes minus commercials. On the same night, NBC is airing "Second Half," about a divorced father trying to relate to three teenage daughters. Another single parent is the basis for Wednesday night's "The a" on ABC, about an African-American woman with two jobs and four children. And still another single parent is featured on "Angel Falls" Thursdays on CBS, in which a single mother returns to a small town in California to raise her son.
On Friday, NBC's "Against the Grain" goes unswervingly with the grain, being a mainstream sitcom about a family in a Texas town where football is life. Saturday's "Cafe American" on NBC puts a divorced American mother in charge of a Paris cafe catering to Americans, and on Sunday "Lois and Clark" (sorry, but that's the title) reduces Superman, Clark Kent, and Lois Lane to sitcom status.
There's much more to the season than this, of course. Among the anomalies, for instance, is a somber series on NBC called "John Larroquet" about a recovering alcoholic. But basically the networks are biding their time. And in today's fast-changing and unpredictable TV universe, well they might.