Free TV - a Survivor

IT'S good to see that the commercial TV networks appear to be hanging in there, even as a new electronic age approaches.

Only a few years ago, ABC, NBC, and CBS were being written off as ``dinosaurs,'' doomed by other electronic forms. Their share of the audience during prime time had dropped significantly and was threatened with further fragmentation by cable, interactive video, and other forms.

Now we note that some industry analysts are seeing ABC, CBS, and NBC as survivors, perhaps even prosperous ones. Blockbuster broadcasts like the 1994 Winter Olympics on CBS have proved that networks can still deliver the huge viewership that other media cannot duplicate.

Recent regulatory changes have removed restrictions on the networks' right to create and own prime-time shows. Networks will also be able to own an interest in programs made in nonnetwork studios, and they can now sell reruns of their own series in the profitable overseas market.

These and other developments are big pluses in terms of revenue. And the networks possess another unique edge: the ability to promote new programs during breaks on existing shows with already high ratings.

Cable growth, meanwhile, may have peaked. The competition generated by continued proliferation of new channels may take place mainly within the cable industry itself. Cable's battle with the networks over retransmission of network signals also seems to have turned to the networks' advantage, resulting in the creation or planning of new cable channels by the networks themselves. These enjoy a competitive advantage because they will be widely carried on many cable systems as a tradeoff for network retransmission rights.

This is all good news for millions of viewers. New-video-age visions aside, the networks are the only game in town for many Americans, and will probably remain so for the next several years. Of those American homes with TV sets, some 27 percent don't have cable, in many cases because they cannot afford to. That's more than 25 million homes that depend wholly on broadcast TV - commercial and public.

Meanwhile the electronic ``superhighway'' is far from complete. And even when it is, it may bypass many people who either cannot afford access fees and other costs or don't have the knowledge to take advantage of its resources.

For such people, networks remain the mainstay. Though we acknowledge their abuses - ``news'' re-creations, increasingly explicit material, an avalanche of commercials - we still hope the networks will survive, providing a free source of news and entertainment.

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