While television executives skirmish center stage over how to combat the ABC juggernaut, "Who Wants to be a Millionaire?" slow progress toward fundamental changes in the industry continues in the wings.
Just this past week, NBC and ABC announced agreements with the NAACP, which had questioned the increasingly lily-white television landscape some nine months ago. Among other things, the networks pledged to fund minority writers as well as tie executive bonuses to success in hiring minorities. A meeting with the NAACP on diversity is set for February.
Despite the presence of negotiations which have included threatened boycotts and ongoing discussion, the midseason slate of shows is a good hint of just how slow progress may be in changing industry ways. With the exception of CBS's "City of Angels," none of the newest entries stars a minority.
Aside from issues raised by the ongoing negotiations, comic Fred Allen's observation that imitation is the sincerest form of television might best characterize the midseason lineup. It is nothing if not sincere.
More cop shows ("The Beat," "Battery Park"), more doctor shows ("City of Angels," "Wonderland"), more teens and 20-somethings coming of age in the big city ("DC," "Zoe," "The Others," "M.Y.O.B.,") as well as more of the newly popular adult-animated series ("Sammy," "God, the Devil and Bob," "Baby Blues"), all of them genres that have been well-mined in recent years. "The Others" premires on NBC Saturday, Feb. 5, from 10-11 p.m. Air dates have not been set for the remaining shows.
And then, of course, there is the current game-show craze that is producing no fewer than 14 prime-time game shows in this current two-week period - a surprisingly successful return to one of the oldest formats on the air.
"We're in a sort of meat-and-potatoes period," says Robert Thompson, head of the Center for the Study of Popular Television at Syracuse University in New York. The media guru points to the '80s as a period of "great innovation" in the medium, which brought such shows as "Hill Street Blues," "Moonlighting," and "Twin Peaks." At that point, the end of the decade and the early 1990s, "you could turn on the TV and literally, you didn't know what you were going to see. It was like going into a [surrealist painter] Salvador Dali retrospective."
Since that time, Dr. Thompson says, we've had an explosion of tried-and-true formats, in particular the hour-long dramas, many of which focus on family.
He points to the surprise hits of the past season, a number of them centering around mature women working out domestic problems ("Judging Amy," "Providence," "Once and Again").
However, familiarity doesn't necessarily breed mediocrity. It can pave the way for the best work of mature talents. Two of the midseason's most eagerly anticipated new shows come from the pens of two of TV's most revered veteran writers: the hospital drama "City of Angels" from Steven Bochco, and the police drama "The Beat" from Tom Fontana.
"Mature themes seem to be popular right now," says Fontana, whose highly rated show of seven seasons, "Homicide," will be returning as a movie on NBC this spring. "They see me coming for my pitch meetings and they want the ideas I have," he says with a laugh, adding, "I guess maybe we'll know when the trend is over. They won't take my meetings anymore."
Even the game-show formats showcase more mature performers. "It takes a seasoned talent to handle these game shows," says Maury Povich, who hosts the new NBC version of the old "21" game show that ended in scandal back in the '50s.
At the same time, the relatively newer adult animation format may be moving in the other direction, often focusing on deeply dysfunctional adults who appear to be regressing emotionally.
"My father hasn't ever really grown up," says comedian David Spade, whose new animated show, "Sammy," is based on the relationship between him and his father after his parents divorced. "The show isn't going to whitewash that," he adds. "It will celebrate it."
NBC's other new animated show, "God, the Devil and Bob," will feature James Garner as the voice of God, looking remarkably like the legendary rock 'n' roller, Jerry Garcia of the Grateful Dead.
At the same time, it is possible to see innovation within the familiar formats, says media pundit Thompson. "This midseason is a good time to try out ideas that might take a little longer to take hold," he points out, noting that there is not nearly as much competition for something new. For example, Fontana appears to be pushing the envelope with his new show, "The Beat," which mixes film and video as well as other visual distortions to good effect.
But overall, says Thompson, the notion of traditional seasons may be on its last legs. "People's viewing habits have changed so dramatically," he says. In earlier, pre-cable and satellite days, audiences couldn't wait for the new fall or winter shows to bring in some new creative blood. "These days, new material is available almost all the time. This whole notion of seasons is going to be a dinosaur very soon."
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society