Why Groundbreaking TV Is So Rare

Impatient executives, slow-to-build audiences stymie innovative shows like 'TV Nation'

It's 1:15 a.m. in a still bright and bustling Times Square, and a bleary-eyed Michael Moore has just finished a string of interviews with people who insist they don't want or need unions. Mr. Moore, the producer, writer, and host of Fox Television's irreverent ''TV Nation,'' tosses his microphone in the air, catches it, and with a sudden burst of energy turns his baseball-capped, 200-pound frame toward the camera.

''It's not surprising corporate America has convinced most people they don't need unions,'' Moore ad-libs with a grin that cuts through the weariness. ''Unions have made it possible for most of us to have decent wages, health insurance, vacation time, and benefits.''

With sex and violence readily available on television, and talk shows giving vent to almost any kind of social or sexual oddity imaginable, it's surprising there's anything left that can be considered controversial on television. But Moore's iconoclastic documentary series fits the bill.

''What they have to deal with, with us, is not language or nudity or violence, it's ideas - and that's really dangerous,'' Moore says.

Will Emmy nominee last?

Since 1971, when Norman Lear's ''All in the Family'' first brought working-class reality and cutting political satire into the sanitized land of ''Ozzie and Harriet,'' networks have had love/hate relationships with groundbreaking shows. Many never get on the air, or are canceled after a short run. Those that survive, at least initially, often have to fight with network executives wary of offending sensitive advertisers.

But whether it's ''Maude,'' ''Hill Street Blues,'' or ''The Simpsons,'' such shows have started new trends, expanded television's boundaries, and proven to have long lives in syndication.

Moore's critically acclaimed show was just nominated for an Emmy. But he doesn't know if it will survive into the fall.

''I find it extraordinary that a show that was just nominated for an Emmy should even be associated with the idea of a cancellation,'' says David Mortimor, a producer with the BBC, which airs ''TV Nation'' in Britain.

But what may seem bizarre to the British with their noncommercial and sometimes-quirky television, is business as usual in Hollywood.

''The networks are in the business of short-term, bottom-line, thinking,'' says Norman Lear. ''In television that translates into 'Give me a hit on Tuesday night at 8:30, and [forget] everything else.''

What suffers, Lear says, is the innovation and risk taking.

''Any idea that inherently requires some time for the audience to get acclimated to ... has no opportunity to develop,'' Lear says.

While each of the three major networks has taken risks throughout the years, in general they remain cautious, relying more on ratings and demographic surveys than on daring, creative instincts.

The advent of cable TV, with its subscriber-based license to air almost anything, did nudge the three major networks in new directions. But it took the success of the upstart Fox network to really push their limits.

''We always talked about doing things to get us noticed, not gratuitously, but we wanted to do things that no one else was doing,'' says Bob Greenblatt, Fox's executive vice president for prime-time series development.

Fox became a network in 1990 when the warm-hearted ''Bill Cosby Show'' on NBC topped the ratings. So Fox executives developed the family satire ''Married ... With Children'' to be the anti-Cosby show. The new network put a cartoon, the irreverent and sometimes painfully honest ''The Simpsons,'' in the heart of its prime-time lineup. And it developed shows targeted toward teenage audiences, like ''Beverly Hills 90210.''

Many of their shows, like ''90210,'' had pathetic ratings at first, but Fox stayed with them. ''Since it takes audiences longer to find our shows, we have to keep them on longer,'' says Greenblatt. ''The good news is we've had some really big hits when we did that.''

When ''All In the Family'' first aired, it won critical acclaim but not much of an audience. It wasn't until the series went into summer reruns that its ratings soared. The same is true for the perennial comedy ''Cheers.'' But how is the savvy executive to know if a season's flop could turn into the next decade's hit series?

That's the art of the business. Executives at NBC first saw Moore's imaginative flair in his ironic 1989 documentary ''Roger & Me.'' The film featured the pudgy and jovial Moore traipsing around decaying and dispirited Flint, Mich., in search of Roger Smith, the CEO of General Motors. From Moore's perspective, Flint and its people had made GM, only to be abandoned by the company when it saw the potential for higher profits elsewhere - yet Roger Smith didn't even have the courtesy to talk with the people of Flint.

Record-setting film

The film's mix of humor and harsh reality tapped a vein that soon made it the largest grossing documentary in history.

''NBC came to me and said, 'Have an hour, do what you want with it,' '' Moore says. ''I told them I didn't think they'd like what I came up with.''

He came up with ''TV Nation,'' a magazine-style show that's part documentary, part ''stupid pet tricks,'' which premiered last summer. Its odd mix of outrageous humor and political commentary immediately developed a cult following. But it failed the ratings test. After a short summer run, NBC canceled the show.

''There were a lot of us inside NBC who were pulling for it,'' says an NBC marketing executive who wished not to be identified. ''Its ratings were good, but they weren't great, and that's the bottom line in TV.''

Fox TV executives, thinking they had found the antidote to ''60 Minutes,'' picked up the show this summer.

Moore and ''Crackers, the Corporate Crime Fighting Chicken'' have gone to Philadelphia to ask banks why they charge $40 for a bounced check that only costs $2.50 to process. He's visited Newt Gingrich's Cobb County, Ga., an antigovernment stronghold, and pointed out that the residents there have received $4 billion from the federal government. And he's brought love to the hate mongers, serenading white supremacists, baking a cake with the Michigan Militia, and planting flowers at the home of an antiabortion protester who advocates violence.

Fans' responses

''It's the honesty of it, the forceful honesty that's so unparalleled,'' says Abby Fisher of New York, who was part of the late-night crowd watching Moore tape in Times Square.

''He cuts to what he's trying to say with few words and a lot of sarcasm,'' says Paul Goldenberg of Philadelphia. ''He's someone from the grass roots who's trying to get common people to fight back against things we think we can't control,'' says Mary Beth Carroll of Ann Arbor, Mich.

While Fox's Greenblatt also spoke glowingly of ''TV Nation's'' humor and the need to give unusual shows time to develop an audience, he did not comment directly on its future.

Will ''TV Nation'' be on this fall? Watch how it does in the ratings over the next few weeks.

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