TELEVISION

A laugh a minute

The networks use comedy to improve ratings

VICTOR DWYER August 12 1991
TELEVISION

A laugh a minute

The networks use comedy to improve ratings

VICTOR DWYER August 12 1991

A laugh a minute

TELEVISION

The networks use comedy to improve ratings

Crazy-sounding television series have been around at least as long as Mr. Ed and My Mother the Car, which starred, respectively, a talking horse and a talking automobile. But the bizarre nature of many new offerings for the fall season indicates that network executives have reached new levels of desperation. Attempting to halt, or at least to slow down, a decade-long erosion of their audiences caused by the rise of cable TV and the proliferation of specialty services, they will be trying out some extremely strange concepts in the months to come. The stars of new shows will include talking rodents who live in the White House and four forces—named Genius, Wimp, Angel and Animal—who live inside, and battle for the control of, a young editor’s mind. Those shows are airing at a time when the networks have cancelled several critically acclaimed hour-long drama series, including thirtysomething and China Beach. Said Robert Pike, professor of sociology at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ont.:

“It seems that this fall, more than ever, we’re witnessing the trivialization of the medium. That is bad news for audiences—and for the networks themselves.”

An ever-widening array of options has drastically changed the nature of television in recent years. Since 1980, the big three American networks—

ABC, CBS and NBC—have lost approximately a third of their viewers to cable and pay TV services, which provide more specialized programming in fields ranging from news and sports to country music. Last year alone, cable’s share of the prime-time U.S. audience grew an astonishing 26 per cent—while the big three networks witnessed an average five-per-cent drop in viewers.

And now, in Canada, two significant new specialty services—U.S. superstations and pay-per-view—will soon be available. Beginning in September, Canadian cable companies will be able to offer their subscribers a variety of U.S. superstations, which broadcast a mix of programming including classic movies and live, major-league sporting events. They include WTBS, the Atlanta-based service owned by Cable News Network magnate Ted Turner, which will broadcast 120 Atlanta Braves baseball games in 1991 and 1992, and Boston’s WSBK, which will carry 78 Boston Red Sox

baseball games and 41 Boston Bruins hockey games in the new season. WGN from Chicago will broadcast 180 Cubs and White Sox baseball games.

Only households subscribing to pay TV, as opposed to the less expensive basic cable, will be eligible to receive the U.S. superstations. By subscribing to a Canadian pay TV service such as the First Choice movie channel, a household can also receive the superstations

offered by its local cable service for an additional fee of approximately $2 a month.

Also, pay-per-view service—which was available over the past year on a trial basis in Saskatchewan—will be available in Central and Eastern Canada beginning in September. Viewers choosing to watch specific movies and sporting events will be billed from $4.40 to $20 for each offering, with prices varying according to the nature of the event.

Meanwhile, other developments may soon alter the look of U.S. television. ABC Entertainment president Robert Iger recently predicted that the big three might begin replacing network prime-time programming with local

shows to save money. And NBC is experimenting with moving prime time one hour ahead at its Sacramento, Calif., affiliate KCRA in an effort to attract early-evening viewers.

Still, the networks’ most effective means of counteracting adversity is to devise popular programs. And this year, more than ever, their plan of attack is to focus on the half-hour comedy. It is a trend that they have followed ever since NBC’s The Cosby Show aired in 1984, rapidly pulling that network from third place to number 1, where it remains. Since then, the number of one-hour programs has dropped from 42 to 28 on the three networks, while the number of half-hour shows has jumped from 24 to 48. The increasingly influential Fox Broadcasting Co., which made its debut in 1986, has created several innovative comedies. In the months to come, the network will introduce a wide range of new half-hour comedies, but no dramas, on its group of loosely affiliated stations.

Indeed, Fox’s determination to succeed on almost comedy alone—and with such untraditional vehicles as the off-color Married . . . With Children, the high-tech Parker Lewis Can’t Lose and the animated The Simpsons— has been one of the major factors influencing the kind of comedy being offered by other networks. Said Pip Wedge, for one, vice-president of programming at the Toronto-based CTV network, which will be showing four new American comedies in the fall: “Fox has told the U.S. networks, and us too, that you’ve got to stand up and wave your hands, and shout, ‘Hey, audience, we’ve got some weird stuff over here that you should take a look at.’ ”

Two of Fox’s new shows this season continue its tradition of moving beyond so-called living-room-based situation comedies for wilder, more off-the-wall fare. In September, Fox will launch Herman’s Head, in which actors portray four forces vying with one other inside the mind of an editor. Later in the year, Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventures, based on a movie about the same characters, will follow the exploits of a pair of high-school students who travel through time in a phone booth.

The big three networks are readying some unusual offerings of their own. ABC will present Good and Evil, written by Susan Harris, whose eccentric evening serial Soap was a cult favorite in the late 1970s. In the new show—which is about a pair of sisters, one sweet, the other vicious—the characters routinely joke about such topics as urinary tract infections and sexual bondage. In the Married . . . With Children vein, the network is offering a lowbrow twist on the 1970s squeaky-clean family comedy The Brady Bunch with Step by Step. It stars Suzanne Somers (Three’s Company), the single mother of three angelic children, who marries an uncultivated sort played by Patrick Duffy (Dallas), who has three ill-mannered offspring of his own. NBC, meanwhile, is weighing in with the darkly funny Love Child. Produced by All in the Family ’s Norman Lear, and starring John Forsythe, it is the story of a shamelessly sleazy politician who shares a house with his illegitimate grown-up daughter.

Although CBS appears to be aiming for older,

relatively conservative audiences with a fall lineup that includes new shows with Carol Burnett and Redd Foxx, that network is also dabbling in the eccentric and the outlandish. It is currently running a six-episode series,

Morton & Hayes, produced and hosted by Rob Reiner and featuring a fictional 1930s comedy team that Reiner introduces to the audience as genuine historical figures whose black-and-white films have recently been rediscovered. Following Fox’s popular The Simpsons, CBS will air Family Dog, the animated brainchild of director Tim Burton, whose feature films have included the hits Batman and Edward Scissorhands. The wryly satirical cartoon looks at the world through the eyes of a household’s mangy mutt.

Animals are inhabiting the schedule at ABC as well. That network’s Dinosaurs introduced a scaly-skinned prehistoric blue-collar family to prime time last April. A moderate success, it is being joined in the new season by Capitol Critters. An animated look at the goings-on of the White House from the perspective of the rodents, insects and animals that inhabit its woodwork, it is the creation of mega-producer Steven Bochco (Hill Street Blues, L.A.

As well as cranking out comedies, the networks are increasingly filling time slots with so-called reality programs, usually featuring re-enacted crimes and accidents, such as CBS’s Rescue 911 and Top Cops, and ABC’s new fall show, FBI: 7 he Untold Stories. That reliance on comedy and reality programs is disturbing to many industry watchers. Said Robert Thompson, a professor of communications at Syracuse University and the co-author of Architects of the Air—The Makers of American Television: “Reality programs are cheap to produce, and weird comedies hold the promise of attracting audiences in the short term—but they aren’t good TV, and that does not bode well for the long-term health of the networks.”

But according to ABC’s Iger and others, many viewers are simply not interested in watching serious, hour-long shows. Iger put some of the blame on the proliferation of the remote-control channel changer, which, he claims, makes it easy for audiences to flip away from “sitdown, quiet, get-involved drama.” CTV’s Wedge expressed similar sentiments about the demands of such shows. Said Wedge: “Most people just don’t want to think too deeply for an entire hour—not when they see television as a way to just relax.”

Still, in Canada, the appetite for homegrown drama seems to be on the increase. Ivan Fecan, director of English-language programming at the CBC, says that his network’s ongoing attempts to Canadianize prime time is a direct response to the growing popularity of such onehour Canadian drama series as Road to Avonlea and Street Legal. Fecan points out that such programs are becoming more popular all the

time. Last season, those dramas, along with CTV’s E.N.G and Bordertown, routinely placed in the Top 30 programs on Canadian TV.

Networks on both sides of the border are also looking to the cable companies themselves to help them offset the financial pressures that have come with competition. Earlier in the summer, ABC and New York City-based Nickelodeon, a cable network specializing in children’s programming, jointly launched a new

comedy, Honey, Fm Home, about a 1950s television family transported to real-life 1990s suburbia. And NBC—which bought the rights to the 1992 Summer Olympic Games in Barcelona for $460 million—has joined forces with the Cablevision Systems Corp., of Woodbury, N.Y., to offer in-depth Olympic coverage to Cablevision’s 1.1 million subscribers. NBC, meanwhile, will join forces with PBS next year to present joint coverage of the Democratic and Republican presidential conventions. And to produce its single new Canadian show this fall, the futuristic one-hour drama Counterstrike, CTV teamed up with the New York-based USA Cable Network, where the show made its American première last fall.

Without doubt, the rise of cable and other specialty services has had a seismic effect on network television. Said Syracuse’s Thompson: “The networks are going to have to accept that the great American audience, tuning in 50 million at a time to watch one show, is gone— and that attracting solid, loyal, medium-sized audiences is the way ahead.” Added Thompson: “In the future, that will take more than looking sillier than the next guy.” For millions of viewers who are looking ahead to a new network season dominated by time-travelling teenagers, slovenly stepfathers and disgrunu tied cartoon canines, that future cannot arrive soon enough.

VICTOR DWYER with PAMELA YOUNG